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Easy Watching: Agatha Christie’s “The Witness for the Prosecution” in Must-See New Television Version



In January 1925 Agatha Christie wrote a compact short story called “Traitor Hands.” She republished it in 1933 as “Witness for the Prosecution.” In it, down-at-heel Leonard Vole befriends an old lady who puts him in her will before she’s murdered. He’s tried for the crime but is declared innocent after a mysterious figure comes forward with evidence proving he couldn’t have been present at the bloody death.

In the ’50s Christie adapted the intriguing tale, with a deliciously cynical denouement twist, for the stage. Subsequently, the play became a 1957 movie–with Christie’s elaboration on her tightly composed original take reworked for the screen by Harry Kurnitz, Lawrence B. Marcus and director Billy Wilder.

Now another nifty version our way comes from screenwriter Sarah Phelps and from Acorn (airing Monday, January 30, check listings). Pointedly, it’s called The Witness for the Prosecution. The new “the” seems added to indicate that yet a radically different treatment of Christie’s long-ago introed is afoot, yet another extremely creative approach to Christie’s basic outline.

Without going into deep comparisons of the different incarnations, let’s just say that this time Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) is defended in court by John Mayhew (Toby Jones), who–unlike Charles Laughton in the film–is a man whose career hasn’t gone well in part because he’s been preoccupied with a marriage to distant wife Alice (Hayley Carmichael) that’s been foundering after his son perished in World War I.

One big change this time is Vole’s rich benefactress. She’s well-heeled Emily French, and she’s played in a series of marvelously gaudy flashbacks by Kim Cattrell, who, of course, shines in man-hungry roles (see Sex and the City). Cattrell is at the top of her form in these flamboyant scattered scenes. With Emily French, Vole is ostensibly running around on his companion (but, importantly, not wife) Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough, breathtakingly beautiful here), whom he met in a World War I trench–and has been with every since.

Much of Vole’s trial outcome–argued in court by tough-minded barrister Sir Charles Carter KC (David Craig)–concerns Romaine, who’s in a position to provide an alibi for Vole. Instead, she makes a few unexpected–make that, wildly unexpected–moves before the jury returns with its verdict.

An interesting aspect of Phelps’s spin is that Mayhew–by way of his sad marriage and the change in his standing once the Vole verdict is announced–becomes as much a focus in this treatment as the accused. The surprising results play out at a grand seaside hotel some time later, but no more of that will be divulged here.

Incidentally, the plot twists also have a long-range effect on Emily’s loyal, put-upon retainer, Janet McIntyre (Monica Doran). Throughout, the peeping Janet is a force to be reckoned with.

Director Julian Jarrold melds all the elements–including the luxuriant work of production designer Nick Palmer, costume designer Claire Anderson and director photography Felix Wiedemann–into a truly sensation made-for-television film. The first-rate cast, led by the bearded (for a while) and spectacled Jones, is part of two three-dimensional character studies neatly contained without the nicely-shaped whodunnit.

Jarrold builds on an already story darker than most of Christie’s murder-in-the-manor outings and turns it into a transcendent entertainment.

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