Monday, January 30, 2017

The Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Toby Jones as the solicitor Mayhew.
Premise:  In London in 1923, a young man named Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) is accused of murdering his middle-aged lover, Emily French (Kim Cattrall). Shortly before her death, Emily changed her will, leaving Leonard a tidy sum of £185,000. Emily's maid testifies that she saw Leonard leaving Emily's apartment around the time of the crime. However, Leonard's common-law wife Romaine (Andrea Riseborough) testifies that Leonard was home with her that evening. But will a jury believe an alibi supported solely by the accused man's "wife?" That's the challenge facing solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones), who is convinced that Leonard is innocent. Mayhew's case becomes infinitely more challenging when Romaine inexplicably changes her testimony and becomes a witness for the prosecution.

Running Time: The Witness for the Prosecution was originally broadcast in two parts in Great Britain. Each part was 60 minutes (without commercials).

Status:  It can be streamed in the U.S. on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  The Witness for the Prosecution is based on Agatha Christie's 1925 short story--originally titled Traitor Hands--and not on the author's later more famous play. Dame Agatha expanded her story into a stage play in 1953 and added the character of Sir Wilfred Robarts as barrister. Director Billy Wilder adapted the play into a motion picture in 1957. That film starred Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid, Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, and Marlene Dietrich as his "wife" Christine (formerly named Romaine). Wilder's version also added Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), a nurse temporarily assigned to the recently-ill Sir Wilfrid.

Our Review:  The Witness for the Prosecution is a bold, though not wholly successful, adaptation of Dame Agatha's original story. The producers deserve credit for trying something different, as opposed to mounting another remake of Wilder's famous film. The performances are its strongest element, led by Toby Jones as the solicitor Mayhew and Andrea Riseborough. The latter gives an effective portrayal in the pivotal role of Romaine, though she fails be convincing in her key scene. The movie's first half presents a dark, grim portrait of 1920s London, with its foul-smelling prisons and murky streets. That nicely sets up the second half in which the film becomes visually brighter as Christie's tale takes a surprising change in direction. Yet, the acting and direction cannot overcome the biggest challenge faced by The Witness for the Prosecution: How to expand Agatha Christie's short story into a feature-length film. Alas, I don't think the film's additions enhance the story. Mayhew is now a World War I veteran who suffers from the effects of mustard gas and has a complex relationship with his wife (which is explained in the final scenes). Emily's maid has become a lesbian jealous of her mistress's relationship with Leonard Vole. And Mayhew makes a decision at the climax that ends the film on a depressing note. These changes sapped all the fun of Agatha Christie's twisty tale for me--though viewers looking for something different may be satisfied with this new adaptation.

Grade: C+.

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