We got our first real whiff of the BBC’s new working relationship with the Agatha Christie estate with last year’s And Then There Were None (let’s conveniently gloss over the fairly awful Partners In Crime before it), and if that was anything to go by our festive visit to Christieville is going to be an annual treat. And Then There Were none felt like a fresh take on an old story – its intriguing whodunit elements retained and observed reverentially, with lashings of gorgeous set design, superb, big-name actors and beefed-up depth and social context in its characters. If And Then There Were None set a benchmark for future Christie Christmas adaptations, then The Witness For The Prosecution surely followed suit.
NB: Spoilers ahead
It’s important to note that The Witness For The Prosecution was a short story and, subsequently, a play in which Christie herself had changed the ending. With this in mind I was interested to see how this adaptation ends (that’s to be discussed tomorrow night), but first we had the set-up and the murder itself to consider. And also the suspects.
Set in the immediate aftermath of World War I, the two-parter kicks off on the battlefield: a young man staggering through the detritus of war, bombs exploding all around him; a trench the only shelter from the horror of relentless mud, dazzling explosions and noise. There, in the trench he takes shelter in, is a young woman; face blackened with smoke and filth and with an empty, broken soul. They lock eyes, a wordless bond forged in the terror.
We’re then transported to the decadence of post-war, 1920s London, where champagne and good times reign. The war is a memory; a story that only some people tell. We meet socialite Emily French (Kim Cattrall, displaying that carefree spirit she imbues all her characters with), a middle-aged woman who has an itch she regularly scratches without impunity. Her life is a life of hollow luxury – pretty things are strewn around her sumptuous apartment, while she chooses pretty things for her bedroom, too. She meets the same man who we saw in the trenches – Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) – in a club and instantly licks her lips in anticipation, knowing that he will be the next pretty thing to walk through her doorway and help scratch that itch. “My fires are supposed to be out, but my fires rage unchecked. Do you follow?” she breaths lustily to young Leonard, who can’t quite believe what is happening to him. Despite her bravura and feline confidence, you sense that Emily French is unhappy, and at her core she is lonely and weary. Perhaps in Leonard she sees something or someone different. Perhaps she might feel something for him.
It’s not the first time in this episode we see a character struggling to feel something, anything.
Emily French pays to bathe him, and more. Their relationship intensifies and soon Ms French is infatuated by her new, young lover. Watching the relationship develop from a safe distance is the lady’s faithful housekeeper, Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan), whose withering acceptance of any man entering her house belies a twitching jealousy – she lives in a delusional world where her employer is her child, her place of work her home and servitude a means of control rather than duty.
But then… French lies in a pool of her own blood, McIntyre looking down on trembling, bloodied hands as she sits on the stairs. French’s snow-white Persian cat pads across the murder scene silently, leaving her own footprints of blood on the floor, stopping to lick blood off its dainty paws. It’s a hugely arresting, evocative image – the juxtaposition of luxury and blood saying to me, at least, that only one thing can come of this decadent dream of a world.
So we have the set-up. Two suspects: the lover, Leonard Vole, and the housekeeper Janet McIntyre. Vole, accused by McIntyre, is shortly apprehended and thrown into a holding cell.
We then meet John Mayhew (Toby Jones), a short, shuffling man, who’s on the scene to provide legal services to the suspect. Mayhew’s face is riven with sorrow, his lungs burned by gas from the war, and his life squashed by grief – he lives a silent life with his wife, who sits motionless in her son’s still-pristine bedroom even though he was killed in the war. She cooks her husband meals and engages with him, but is always somewhere else. In an extraordinary scene, we see her sewing at the dinner table but out of sight of her husband she eases a needle into her thumb while she looks impassively at her husband eating. One of many superb visual moments, it underlines her unhappiness and her total disconnection from the world around her, feeling nothing, not even physical pain. Her husband eats and coughs opposite her, but all she can hear is the heavy, metronomic tick-tock of the grandfather clock. Later, Mayhew buys her a new scarf and they end up in bed – him thrusting, yelping like a small dog and coughing away, while she, again, looks impassively into the middle distance, her mind elsewhere. It’s more pain, but this time the pain of the now. She wants to be anywhere but there, in this life, with her husband inside her.
Mayhew, meanwhile, sees Vole as almost a surrogate, and the case as a way to save a young man in a way he could not have saved his own son, who perished in the same war he survived. Salvation, redemption. We see these things a lot in crime drama.
And so he goes to work, and builds the case for Vole’s defence. He stalks the dark, almost olive-green, gas-lit streets of Twenties London, finding the theatre where Vole’s partner, Romaine (the woman he met in the trench), works as a singer and dancer. He’s entranced by her – when he sees her perform for the first time, he bawls like a child. Spotting him in the crowd and seeing – recognising – his unhappiness Romaine (the mesmerising Andrea Riseborough) confesses that she, too, has seen horrors and exhibits a world-weary, cool, European detachment. But, crucially, she is Vole’s alibi – he was at home with her when the crime was committed, she drawls. He couldn’t have done it, despite Janet McIntyre’s surety.
As we traverse this mystery – which is superbly directed and written, boasting incredible sound and production design – we wade through broken people like long grass in a meadow. From Ms French and her luxurious but ultimately hollow life and McIntrye’s strange and creepy possessiveness, to Vole and Romaine, and the Mayhews – all broken somehow by war – this mystery has a depth of characterisation that helps to lock you in and keep you there.
Romaine throws a spanner in the works when she changes her story and suddenly Vole is plunged into a sudden sure thing – he’s bound to hang without his alibi. We leave proceedings wondering why she changed her story. And it’s the way we judge Romaine – or are at least manipulated to judge her – that’s interesting here. She’s Austrian with a heavy, flat accent. A dancer where, in a world of dull, serious men and browns and blacks and darkness, her red skirts and hats and lips flash exoticism and danger. She’s a Marlene Dietrich (who actually, fact fans, appeared in the original 1957 movie version); a femme fatale in the classic sense. Is she wreaking her revenge because her beloved Leonard was having an affair with another woman? Is she dangerous because she’s from another country and ‘different’? Is she evil because she’s a dancer and doe-eyed entertainer and without a sure moral compass? Is she a woman with a granite heart? She tells Mayhew with mocking scorn: “Oh you are a romantic. Of course you are. Weeping over a sentimental song, crying, crying as if your heart would break. No, it’s worse than that – you were crying, crying as if your broken heart could heal. As though there’s hope… as though there’s such a thing as love.”
Romaine has been placed before us and we, according to our own prejudices, will judge her.
Part two tomorrow night.
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