After last year’s Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, hopes were set high for short story turned into two-part drama special Witness for the Prosecution, but this was quite a different beast. No mansions, no dinner guests being offed one-by-one, no detective twirling his enviable moustaches and not a normal Christie ending. Much interfering had been done, and there wasn’t much in the way of original Christie to be seen.
We’re transported to the roaring twenties and Kim Cattrall is Ms French, a wealthy widow living it up and having a fine time with her fancy man Leonard Vole much to the disgust of her loudly disapproving maid Janet. These days Emily French would be mocked as a cougar, a woman of a certain age who is attracted to younger men and has the nerve to go after them. These prejudices are certainly represented and Emily knows her actions make her unpopular and looked-down on in high society, but she doesn’t really care. Money is a pretty good insulator against what people think of you. Cattrall, famous for a strikingly similar character in Sex and the City, is essentially playing Samantha 70 years earlier.
I wanted to see more of her and her fabulous life, but sadly she gets offed pretty quickly and in quite a messy fashion in her parlour. Both her loyal maid Janet and her less loyal fluffy white cat get covered in blood and track it through the house. A right mess for the CSI to sort through… no, wait, that’s not going to happen.
We learn that she changed her will to benefit Leonard, so everyone is immediately keen to pin this on him. Toby Jones as solicitor John Mayhew is seemingly the only person who sees any point in investigating the crime and defending him. He’s a miserable little man, dealing with terrible grief for his only son lost in the trenches of WW1. He’s broke and broken, and stuck in a loveless relationship with a wife who stares right through him. She’s dealing with her own broken heart and maintains her son’s bedroom as if he’s going to come strolling through the front door any day. It’s a tragic little family portrait, one which must have been more common than we’d imagine in the 1920s.
Mayhew is so lost and loveless that he breaks down and cries while watching Leonard’s girlfriend Romaine Heilger sing a ballad on stage. He’s in floods of tears, gulping and gasping at the air. Toby Jones is a fantastic actor and can pretty much do anything. His vulnerability is stunning. This is not a typical Christie detective, usually so capable and competent as to be almost emotionless. Romaine knew Leonard was cheating on her, and Emily was buying his ‘companionship’. She is an Austrian actress in a country where people don’t trust foreigners, especially ones that sound German.
A slow sadness permeates the lives of all the characters, like the yellow/ green, sepia tones that constantly fog up the scenes. I thought this was sickly, maybe a visual reflection of Mayhew’s increasingly poor health, but some clever bod on Twitter pointed out that it was a gas attack that killed the Mayhew’s son and irreparably damaged John’s throat. This is the literal fog of war that seeps through everything we see. The only place we shake it off is in France, when John believes this is all over.
Mayhew is determined to do right by Vole, as a way to find redemption for the son he couldn’t save. Vole is suffering, even before he’s on trial for murder. He voices the anger and hopelessness of all returning service men who are told they will be looked after, will get jobs, housing and a good life in return for their going to war. He ends up having to do “anything to pay the rent”. Again, like attitudes to Emily’s way of life or Romaine’s foreign accent you hope that things have moved on in the last 80 years or so, but they haven’t. Or at least not as far as they should have. This is a sad story played out too frequently and too recently.
So even before lovely girlfriend Romaine turns out to be thoroughly nasty and scheming, we see that this story is quite different to the usual Agatha Christie affair. The murder and the courtroom elements are, I think, the only parts lifted from the book. Mayhew’s backstory and how he fits in to the case seem to be entirely new. Safe to say, the twists and turns here are exceptional. Mr H figured out who the killer was ahead of time (surprise surprise), but it was done so well and was so shocking that it didn’t spoil things for me. I won’t tell you what happens, but I reckon the last 15 minutes or so can be summed up by The Godfather 3 – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”.
As you’d expect from such a dark and surprisingly difficult drama, dealing with grief, hopelessness and depression there’s no happy endings on offer. It’s a haunting offering for the festive season and pretty bleak to catch up with now we’re in January. Pour yourself a large drink before you watch it and line up some kitten videos as a chaser. You’ll need it.
Witness for the Prosecution is on BBC iPlayer, and you can catch up with it anytime over the next three weeks.