Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution review – a world where any evil is possible
Kim Cattrall is tender and quietly desperate by turns in this expertly cast, perfectly crafted murder mystery.
Tuesday 27 December 2016 07.10 GMT
It’s 1923. He’s a poor young man, she’s a wealthy widow in a Holland Park mansion. There’s a jealous housekeeper and a weighty candlestick in the drawing room. It’s Agatha Christie on Boxing Day.
I don’t think I’ve had a happier hour all Christmas than last night’s opening episode of The Witness for the Prosecution (BBC1). Perfectly crafted, expertly cast and beautifully scripted by Sarah Phelps, who gave us her brilliant adaptation of And Then There Were None last year, it was simply all you could want from your Boxing Day treat.
Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall (to give her her full official title) is the wealthy widow, Emily French, who buys and discards young lovers under the watchful, appalled and fascinated eyes of her housekeeper Janet (Monica Dolan). It sounds like a retread of her Samantha role in SATC, but in fact she made French tender and quietly desperate by turns in a performance far more akin to her subtle, heartbreaking turn as Rudyard Kipling’s wife in My Boy Jack a few years ago. And may I say that her English accent survived the line: “After that debacle with plates and glasses, what will you do?” – which is quite the cruellest collection of words ever put into the mouth of anyone charged with reproducing postwar British vowels without being born to the purple – with an aplomb that I think deserves a special Bafta. See to it, please, could you?
The story, at least so far, is relatively simple. French is found bludgeoned to death in her home shortly after Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), her latest lover, whom she has made sole beneficiary of her will, is – according to Janet – seen leaving the house. Vole’s girlfriend Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough, genuinely enigmatic, and genuinely shocking in her pivotal scene) says she can alibi him but when she finds out the extent of his infidelity, withdraws her testimony and is immediately, gleefully gathered to the bosom of the Crown to become a witness for the prosecution.
His lawyer, John Mayhew (Toby Jones, as delicate and nuanced as ever) remains convinced of Vole’s innocence. But is Janet or Romaine lying? Or both? Or, double-bluffingly, neither? Maybe Vole – who, in Phelps’ and Howle’s version, seems less of a chancer or con artist than a naive young man as hopelessly out of control of his destiny in French’s world as he was in the trenches of France where we first meet him – finally rebelled against life as a lapdog and killed her. All will be revealed, but it is a measure of the production’s quality that it almost doesn’t matter. The evocation of this shell-shocked, grief-stricken period of history is really the thing – in the hostility of her fellow chorus girls to the Austrian Romaine, to Howle’s reduction to “being priced like a piece of meat” instead of coming home to the hero’s welcome his savaged generation were promised, to Mayhew’s ruined lungs and his broken wife (Hayley Carmichael, mesmerising with barely a word spoken) sitting in their late son’s empty bedroom, there is an all-pervading sense of people moving reluctantly into and about in a world where any evil is now possible. No certainties any more, and no comfort anywhere.
I doubt there has ever been more brought by a cast, crew and writer to Agatha Christie. It is the most gorgeous gift to the viewer and this one at least looks forward with delighted anticipation and gratitude to unwrapping its second half next week.
Sir Charles Carter KC
Date: 12.12.2016 Last updated: 12.12.2016 at 14.54
Category: BBC One; Drama; Commissioning
Played by Toby Jones
Burdened by poverty and guilt, John Mayhew lives a grey and passionless existence. Leonard’s case changes everything for this exhausted solicitor; his personal connection to the young man fires Mayhew with an unexpected determination to fight for him, to stop at nothing to prove Leonard's innocence…
Played by Andrea Riseborough
A child of the First World War, Romaine Heilger emerges from the depths of the European bloodbath an ingenious survivor and afraid of nothing. At heart a loner, this Austrian singer’s enigmatic allure commands attention wherever she roams; Romaine is destined to enter the limelight sooner or later…
Played by Billy Howle
Haunted by his time at the front, Leonard Vole has been spat out of the war restless, disillusioned and incapable of settling on a job. A friendless innocent in a corrupt world, the odds stacked against him, Leonard is accused of a brutal murder and only one person can save him from the noose…
Played by Monica Dolan
Devoted to the point of possessive, Emily French’s loyal housekeeper has an uncanny ability to pre-empt her mistress’s practical as well as emotional needs, suggesting a bond that surpasses a platonic master-servant relationship. However, Janet’s carefully controlled universe is challenged with the arrival of Leonard Vole…
Played by Kim Cattrall
The staggeringly wealthy widow Emily French is beautiful, glamorous and bored. Used to getting exactly what she wants, she glides through the London highlife, indulging in champagne, raucous nightclubs and meaningless affairs with her favourite pastime: younger men.
Played by Hayley Carmichael
Stifled by years of repressed emotion, Alice has as much verve and vigor as the grey meals she makes Mayhew for dinner. Haunted by the memory of her son who died at war, her few, precious moments of happiness are spent in his bedroom, left perfectly intact since the moment he left.
Sir Charles Carter KC
Played by David Haig
Whilst he enjoys a hearty lunch, this wealthy barrister salivates even more over the prospect of arguing sensational crime cases. He considers Leonard’s case to be a lost cause, until he finds out just how wealthy Leonard will be if he’s proved innocent.