'Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution': TV Review

Courtesy of Agatha Christie Productions and Mammoth Screen
A little gem on Acorn TV.
1/30/2017

Toby Jones and Kim Cattrall star in this taut, mesmerizing mystery, which becomes much more than a whodunit thanks to its psychological complexity.

Every once in a while, a show comes along to hammer home the truism that less can really be more.

In Britain, the two-part Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution was a critical success, and Acorn, the Brit-centric streaming service (which I wrote about in a critic's notebook), has smartly cobbled it together as a two-hour movie that premieres Monday and delivers one of the most surprisingly dark and twisty — and satisfying — endings in some time.

With television, we get so caught up in wanting 13 or 10 or even six episodes of a "series" that anything short of that is considered an aperitif not fit to satiate our desire for consumption (even if many of us are frequently complaining that there's too much television to watch).

The Witness for the Prosecution, an atmospheric and finely acted little gem, should go down just right. In a very short amount of time, the impact left is impressive.

A 1920s-set murder mystery based on an Agatha Christie short story (already made into Billy Wilder's 1957 film of the same title), adapted for television with an impressively modern feel by Sarah Phelps (And Then There Were None) and superbly directed by Julian Jarrold (The Crown, The Girl), Witness ends up being surprising at every turn — especially in the home stretch.

When we first meet Leonard Vole (Billy Howle, The Sense of an Ending), he's running for his life in the devastated landscape of battle-torn World War I France, diving into a bunker, waiting for death and looking oddly and confusedly at the face of Romaine (Andrea Riseborough, Birdman), who is also, inexplicably, in the bunker accepting that death is upon her. It's the first instance where you realize that a very complex story is about to be stuffed into a compact two hours.

Not long after, Leonard can't hold a job. Romaine is a chorus girl, belittled by the other dancers and the star of the low-rent production because she's a foreigner. There is no reward for either character, post-war, for surviving. Their melancholy and disappointment with the world is palpable. They live together, unmarried, in London, scraping by.

Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) has a surprisingly effective turn here as a wealthy British widow named Emily French who finds her happiness in a succession of younger men, much to the disapproval of her faithful servant Janet (Monica Dolan, The Casual Vacancy). This is where poor Leonard enters the picture — plucked by Emily from a local club where he's just been fired for tripping down the stairs. She takes him home and feeds him by hand while watching him bathe (one of many spot-on scenes that say a lot in very little time). Emily pays Leonard to please her. Leonard lies to Romaine that he finally has a job he can keep and help them survive.

But every Christie story needs a murder — so Emily is the victim of blunt force trauma several times to the head, bleeding out onto a lush carpet; her beloved cat then walks in and tracks blood around the house (what Jarrold does in that scene sets back many of the gains felines have made in the internet meme era).

Toby Jones (Captain America) plays John Mayhew, the lawyer who comes to Leonard's defense. Jones, in case you haven't been paying attention to this character actor's lengthy and impressive set of roles, is always brilliant. Here, he's a veteran who appears to have suffered trauma to his lungs in the war, via gas (the plague of WWI), and he's left coughing and sputtering around dank offices as an underappreciated underling while at home, he's the sad-sack husband to a wife (Hayley Carmichael) who barely speaks because she can't shake the depression of losing their teenage son in the war.

John's life is grim — and Jones, as the central-most character in this wonderful little story, really makes you feel it. John can't make his wife happy — Phelps and Jarrold illustrate this with maximum efficiency in two scenes of her poking herself with a sewing needle and John pathetically pushing for at least one night of sex. At work, John isn't making much progress, either. He tracks down Romaine at her chorus line job, where she's suddenly ascended to the lead, and weeps at her sad songs, revealing his inner unhappiness, before getting her to admit that Leonard was home with her at the time of the murder. It's a great breakthrough until Romaine realizes what Leonard's "job" really was and turns on him. The only way John can save Leonard is to convince his boss that Janet, the wound-tight and over-protective servant, is probably the real killer. It's a theory his boss finds wanting.

Phelps does a superb job adapting The Witness for the Prosecution, riding Christie's time-honored plot twists and infusing them with additional despair apropos a larger theme here, which is the ruination of dreams that were supposed to come true after the war. Writers and directors have been mining that theme from both World Wars through Vietnam and into our modern Mideast conflicts. It enables a richer and much bleaker exploration of dramatic issues than a mere murder storyline.

The murder of Emily seems like something that John can't solve, and yet who would underestimate the great Toby Jones in any role? What makes this series-turned-movie shift dramatically is John getting a surprising break. And it's precisely at that point, when justice seems to have prevailed, that the aforementioned dark and twisty eye-opener of a denouement begins to unfurl.

Let's just say that Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution isn't like anything you'd expect as it adds a layer of psychological hopelessness to the whodunit — nor is it anything you should miss.

Cast: Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Billy Howle, Kim Cattrall
Written by: Sarah Phelps
Directed by: Julian Jarrold
Premieres: Monday (Acorn TV)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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