#185: Twisting and Turning Worms Aplenty in The Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

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For the second year running, the BBC gave us a Christmastime Agatha Christie adaptation via the pen of Sarah Phelps who — much as with last year’s And Then There Were None — had the common sense to keep the Christie bits that make it so clever and added only where addition was required.  So, how was it?

Inevitably in bulking up a short story into two hours of television there must be some licence taken, but for my money a pretty darn fine job was done.  Yes, there’s probably about 90 minutes of actual content in here, but it’s nice to see that the limitations of the source short story were acknowledged and no attempt was made to equal the three hours that ATTWN commanded.  Slightly more context was given to Toby Jones’ John Mayhew — he’s given a home life, gas-damaged lungs from fighting in the First World War, and a tragic sense of decency and yearning following others events that affected him in that conflict, of which more later — and Romaine Heilger’s life as a chorus girl is sketched in using a wonderful sleight of hand that was made all the more interesting by Adrea Riseborough’s steady transformation throughout.

The much smaller cast gave a far closer scrutiny to the characters that ATTWN allowed, but they were played petty much note-perfectly: Kim Cattrall’s brief turn as Emily French was full of tiny, subtle moments that show what a shame it will be if she’s only ever remembered for Sex and the City; the solicitous asperity and hysteria of the maid Janet MacIntyre was actually close to perfect, with Monica Dolan taking what should on paper be a fairly thankless role and imbuing the slow crumbling of a devoted woman with something rather beautiful; and Billy Howle filled Leonard Vole with the hopelessness and fear necessary to make the role work, but playing the quiet moments with a careful intensity that it would be all too easy to miss.  There’s a scene early on when Vole and Mayhew are meeting to discuss the case and begin talking about their experiences in the War — Jones is wonderful, of course, but Howle plays off him with a barely-contained grace that, in just a few lines, makes Mayhew believe in Vole in a way that the viewer completely buys; it might be the best scene of anything I’ve watched this year.

To get into a few things in a little more depth, there will be SPOILERS from this point on.  I have no experience of the play or the movie spun from this story, so how much Phelps’ take overlaps with those I cannot say; if you’ve not seen this BBC adaptation, you’re better staying away from the following in order to remain unspoiled.

What I especially enjoyed was the way Romaine Heilger was built up through little flashes of leaving things unsaid: the conflict between her and the show’s ‘principal’ Christine at the start — ostensibly over Christine’s ‘man’ — then being turned into something far more sinister when Heilger is suddenly elevated to the lead and Mayhew meets the scarred ‘Christine’ to hear a version of how this came about.  It turns out to be false, but for the uninitiated it’s a nice piece of subtle implication of what could have happened.  Andrea Riseborough played Romaine’s steady changes with astonishing clarity and confidence: from near-wordlessness at the start to meekly practicing her testimony before the mirror to the moment she is undone by Mayhew in court and exits the witness-box with a disdainful “You men!” and then explodes into a calculated piece of fury.  As with ATTWN’s Maeve Dermody, Phelps has provided a wonderful opportunity for a young actress here, and Riseborough like Dermody grabbed it with both hands by never overplaying a single note.

It all fit very neatly with the mood of the piece overall: David Haig’s Sir Charles Carter expounding to a roomful of legal men, a male judge, and a jury of twelve men that the man before them accused of murder was victim of the “perfidy of woman”, Mayhew and Carter encouraging Vole to plant the seed of suspicion with the jury that Romaine might have been a prostitute at some point in the past (“You don’t have to say that she was, you just have to say you can’t be certain that she wasn’t“), and Mayhew helping Vole with his tie before the trial — reinforcing the almost filial connection forged between the two men — while gently trying to encourage the apparently reluctant younger man to throw any muck he can at his former lover.  I’m not going to go so far as to call this a feminist interpretation of Christie, I don’t think that would be accurate or fair, but it’s built up to become especially interesting when it transpires that these clever, plotting, morally superior men have had the rug pulled from beneath them by not merely a woman but a foreign woman at that — Romaine’s constant undermining brought to life by Haig’s brilliant delivery of the line “When the court hears actress they’ll think whore; when they hear Vienna…well, we all know what they’ll think then”.  As a period piece that works within its period without hammering you over the head with how Post-First World War  it is, this could serve as a textbook for anyone wishing to undertake such an endeavour in the future.

And then we come to the end: Romaine and Vole have conspired to get Vole off, Mayhew encounters them on their honeymoon, and is left doubting himself and his own motivations.  Howle and Riseborough are suitably nightmarish here, and Phelps extends Christie’s own story by looking beyond simply the fact of Vole’s guilt and into its cause and motivation — “Murder?  Just one life after so many…” — “We are what happens when you butcher the young; you cheat us, you lie to us, you expect us to be grateful just for being alive.”  By this point we’ve had to endure the stretching of the material to a point where the plot has become lost and instead a happy montage has shown Mayhew’s ascendancy, but this payoff is worth it, and again Phelps worked it into the fabric of her 1920s setting beautifully.

Only really one false note remains, and in a way it gives rise to one of the best moments of this adaptation: Mayhew returning to his wife and insisting that everything he did was done for her, that his love for her was the motivating factor behind all his success — this might simply be the character breaking down, but it felt rather sudden and struck that lingering false note for me.  But, oh, what a revelation awaits: Alice Mayhew, little more than the quiet and unhappy wife to that point, suddenly turns on her husband with a vengeance that tears even this out from beneath him.  The actress Hayley Carmichael may not have had a great deal of material to work with up to this point, but crikey does she respond when required: this single scene pours out the frustration and rage and hatred that has become too much for her to contain any more following the death of their underaged son in the War.  Holy crap is it ever powerful stuff, and Carmichael judges it perfectly — absolutely spot on, another commanding performance in two hours that delivers in this regard over and over again.

So, all told this is another very strong outing, and shows how Christie can be adapted faithfully, compellingly, and intelligently for a modern audience.  True, it was a trifle over-directed and rather fond of camera filters and green fog, but the work done here in correcting the respect Christie is owed following the frank abomination of the later Poirots, the Marples that have Aunt Jane crammed into novels that didn’t contain her and were then altered beyond all recognition, and That Which Shall Not Be Named (P******* i* C****) is marvellous.  Phelps and the production company Mammoth Screen have an understanding of Christie that can and should produce much fine drama for many Christmases hence — perhaps Crooked House next, guys?

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23 thoughts on “#185: Twisting and Turning Worms Aplenty in The Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

  1. Interesting. I read one blog review that said it was dull as ditchwater, another that said it was triff, and now you’ve made that a majority. (Everyone seems to complain about those filters, though.) Fingers crossed it makes its way across here soon.

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  2. I think we’ve got antipodal opinions on the Xmas telly. While this was well acted, especially Toby Jones, and I understand the need to basically turn the lights off in one crucial scene, but by the end of part one, there wasn’t any solution that made sense apart from the actual one. This would have worked better as a one part tale, probably even shorter than it was…

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    • Yeah, I don’t disagree — it was a good experiment, but there’s so much great material in the standalone novels (Crooked House, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, Seven Dials Mystery — okay, no, not strictly standalone) that it is to be hoped they go there next. And, indeed, that there is a “next” in the first place!

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      • Yes, I agree, there is a lot of good material–lots of books that were never adapted into films and I would like them to be made but only if they pay respect to Christie, her legacy and faithful to the books. There was a faithful adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans and The Seven Dials Mystery in the 80’s. I think there was a Miss Marple adaptation of Evans but she never appeared in the book so I’m sure they weren’t faithful to the book. But if another adaptation of Evans and Seven Dials are made, if they take all these liberties, I rather stick with the 80’s version. I don’t care how old they are. As long as they adhere close to the books.

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        • There WAS an adaptation in the modern Marple series, and the ending was changed so that the killers were an incestuous brother and sister! I mean, really!

          But then I figure modern producers still don’t trust Christie’s name will draw people in unless it’s part of a series. Or maybe they were trying to drum up work for Julia Mackenzie!?! Stretching “The Blue Geranium” to novel length; turning The Secret of Chimneys into a Marple story and changing the killer to one of the novel’s good guys, turning The Sittaford Mystery into a Marple story and then deciding they didn’t like the way the book ended so they turned the hero into the villain; creating a lesbian killer couple in The Body in the Library; sticking Marple into Ordeal by Innocence and then having the character who summons her get murdered just so Marple could have a good cry scene; destroying a fine book like Murder Is Easy by sticking Marple into a novel where the Marple figure IS the killer and then savaging the plot until it is also incestuous and just plain incomprehensible . . .

          Mathew Pritchard himself has boasted about how modern TV will bring his grandmother’s work to the modern generation. I gotta say that I loved the classical presentations of Dickens, Austen and the like that were created with love and fidelity to people like me who were born over a hundred years after they were written. I didn’t need Little Dorrit to be gay or Oliver Twist to be sexually abused or anything brought to the modern era. I didn’t need to see Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy have sex (or battle zombies, thank you!). So why modern audiences can’t see the stories Christie intended them to see is beyond me.

          Whew! I feel better! 🙂

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        • Mathew Prichard’s handling of the Christie properties is nothing short of a disgrace. Your last paragraph here sums up why perfectly, so I have nothing more to add.

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  3. I might give this one a shot after watching the Jonathan Creek special, but I’ll keep my expectations very low. As you pointed out yourself, some of the recent adaptations were far from great.

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    • On the subject of low expectations, set them very far down for Creek. The impossibility is…fine, if really very basic, but almost everything else is terrible. A pale shade of what it used to be, that show, and very hard to take.

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    • Well, I’ll possibly be looking at the Creek in the near future, too, if only to analyse where it went so wrong. Let’s hope Sherlock survives with some credibility…and if the recent Doctor Who special was anything to go by it appears that Moffat’s attention was most certainly not on that…which bodes well, at least!

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        • Yeah, I can’t help but feel that it’s more my fault as I’ve not liked many of the Christmas specials despite being a huge fan of the show — Smith’s regeneration into Capaldi was a novel way to tell that story, and the Capaldi one that was basically Aliens I really liked, but all the others have left me cold in one way or another. And I really, really cannot stand Matt Lucas, so there was always going to be that hurdle to overcome…

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  4. Don’t think I enjoyed this adaptation as much as you did. The Mayhew extension didn’t work for me and I think they should have spent more time developing the court room scenes and focus more on Romaine and Leonard. Romaine to me is still a character which hasn’t been fully explored yet – the short story is rather tantalising in that respect. The atmospheric fog didn’t work for me either, felt too Victorian. Fingers crossed for Sherlock!

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  5. I disagree completely with you on this.
    I found it utterly mediocre, dull and plodding. A simple entertaining short story by Agatha Christie has been converted into melodramatic crap !

    SPOILER ALERT

    My biggest complaint is against the depressing ending where evil is shown triumphant and the innocent are punished. Of course, in the Agatha Christie short story also, the culprit gets away, but atleast the innocent are not punished. Moreover, Agatha Christie was also dissatisfied with the ending and when she rewrote the story for the play, she extended the ending to ensure that justice is done. It is this extended version that formed the basis of the film adaptations.

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    • Fair enough, I can see that it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Personally I liked the way that evil triumphing, as you have it, was tied into the overall setting of the thing — with Vole and Mayhew returned from the war as changed men, with Romaine undercutting the patriarchal pomposity of the “legal men”…for my money, it wasn’t the kind of setting that required or indeed earned a happy ending.

      But — hey! — if Sarah Phelps has a thing for downer endings, that makes Crooked House all the more likely…!

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  6. I disagree with your assessment, JJ. This adaptation was just as much an abomination as the later Poirot’s and the latest Marple incarnation. Witness For The Prosecution in no way pays any respect to Christie at all. The Mayhew subplot just didn’t do it for me and the unnecessary sexual scenes was just that . . . .unnecessary. They included that in just to appeal to the contemporary audience. The film allowed Leonard and Romaine Vole off the hook just as in the short story but they added a “twist” that really wasn’t all that much of a twist at all as BBC made it out to be when they announced this film online. The maid Janet McKenzie takes the fall instead but it wasn’t original nor shocking as Christie’s erupt ending was in the story.

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    • Well, when you look at the parts of this sotry that are directly lifted from Christie’s original — Romaine and Leonard’s plot, the disguise to fool Mayhew, the resulting acquittal, their carrying on together unconcerned — this is actually astonishingly faithful to Christie’s text. If anything, the additions — some of them, I agree, unnecessary — come out of the fact that it was a poor choice of original material to turn into a two-hour special.

      And while the sex scene between Mayhew and his wife wan’t exactly crucial, it does sow the seed (ahem) of her dislike of him and the fact that she isn’t as commited to their relationship as he is. His sudden and complete devotion to her does somewhat come out of nowhere, as I said, but retrospectively — with that in mind as the intended result — the sex scene is less unnecessary than it originally seemed. I think the direction of that thread just sort of caught everyone by surprise and so it seemed unnecessasry at the time (and let’s face it, it’s hardly the soft-focus, nubile bodies, bump up the ratings type of scene that the label “sex scene” brings to mind, now, is it?)

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