Tuesday, June 13, 2017

TV Review: The Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) directed by Julian Jarrold and adapted by Sarah Phelps from a short story by Agatha Christie

The team that created the impressive adaptation of And Then There Were None has subsequently adapted The Witness for the Prosecution, though they have chosen to go back to the short story which was the first version of what eventually became the stage play (to which most productions adhere). The ending of the story is a bit different than the stage and various movie versions though I don't want to spoil what those differences are.

The beginning of the story is the same. Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) is accused of murdering Emily French (Kim Cattrall), an older woman with whom he has been keeping company. Or perhaps being a "kept man" is a better description. She leaves all her wealth to him, so naturally he is the primary suspect. Vole's foreign-born wife Romaine (Andrea Reisborough) is brought in as a witness, but she is a witness for the prosecution to satisfy her jealousy and get her two-timing husband hanged. Solicitor for the defense Mayhew (Toby Jones) is convinced of Vole's innocence and searches for any way to get his neck out of the noose.

In the play, the search for truth and justice is the guiding theme; here, betrayal is the overriding theme. This story adds Janet McIntyre, a female servant for French who is passionately (and almost crazily) devoted to her mistress. She's seen young men come and go; she tells Vole he won't last two weeks. Vole lasts considerably longer and threatens McIntyre's security (she's been written out of the will), so she becomes a plausible secondary suspect. Solicitor Mayhew has guilt over a son who died in World War I (this version is set in the 1920s, so everyone is living under the shadow and sadness of that conflict) and over his fascination with Romaine, who is an actress and singer and beautiful. Mayhew's wife is devoted but frumpy and emotionally detached. Mayhew is willing to take anything to get his man proven innocent, so he betrays his calling to find truth and justice. I find betrayal an interesting theme but it is not as satisfying as the search for truth and justice.

The production is very atmospheric, which doesn't quite work well with the courtroom drama and better fits the investigation outside the courtroom. Fortunately, this version has plenty of action outside the courtroom. Even so, it occasionally lapses into incoherence, e.g. Mayhew seems to practice law in the very prison where he first meets Vole, which seems absurd. The atmosphere comes off more like a affectation than a natural way to present the story. It didn't work for me.

While this presentation had a lot of interesting ideas and adaptations, overall it was not satisfying for me and I can't quite recommend it. Watch the classic movie version with Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich instead.

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