Last year’s Agatha Christie miniseries “And Then There Were None,” which was viewed by approximately six people on Lifetime, was so delicious that it whetted the appetite for more high-end adaptations of the mystery novelist’s works. PBS or a basic-cable network like AMC might have made for a better home for the glossy and smart “None” (and in all fairness, the Lifetime viewership number I cited is not strictly accurate). But no matter: That two-parter was worth seeking out, as is its successor.
“Witness for the Prosecution,” which, like “None,” can be found on the streaming service Acorn, is the second Christie television project from writer/producer Sarah Phelps, and it deftly delivers on the promise of the first.
Phelps has an instinctive understanding for the combination of frustration and obsession that drives the typical Christie character to break the rigid social rules that governed England between the wars. Director Julian Jarrold does a particularly fine job of creating the kind of atmosphere that mixes well-constructed anticipation with a certain strain of enjoyable dread, and in the leading role, Toby Jones is simply terrific.
“Witness” has one of those crackerjack plots that it’s best not to spoil, and in particular, the last third of the movie unleashes several twists that it would be unconscionable to hint at. Suffice it to say that Jones plays John Mayhew, a down-on-his-luck solicitor defending Leonard Vole, a young man accused of murdering his wealthy employer.
Like Vole, Mayhew is a veteran of World War 1, and in many ways, “Witness” is a meditation on the ways in which grief and trauma will not be denied, even in the lives of those convinced that they have nothing to atone for or recover from. These characters are convinced that the war is over, but its energies and consequences have just been transferred to other, more personal fronts. And as is the case so often in English detective fiction, jealousy and resentment are expertly dissected within the confines of a mystery that plays fair with the audience, but manages to keep one step ahead of even the most dedicated armchair detective.
Given that the story is set in London in 1923, it’s not surprising there’s an ambitious showgirl mixed up in the story, and as the quietly watchful Romaine, Andrea Riseborough keeps pace with the talented Jones: Both have a knack for appearing to be helpless victims of circumstance, but both characters have a number of secrets hidden beneath their apparently non-threatening surfaces.
If I call “Witness” a very high-level, meaty “Law & Order” episode executed with period flair, I mean that as a serious compliment. There is a bleakness at the heart of Christie’s tales, and anyone who classifies her as a writer of “cozy” detective fiction has gotten her completely wrong. When it comes to her perceptive view of human nature, there’s very little that is comfy and reassuring, but she is not without generosity, and there is contemplative wisdom in her best work, for those willing to look past her novels’ tweedier trappings.
“Witness” captures that ambiguity and thoughtfulness, and Phelps’ smart and entertaining adaptations will continue to garner my full attention, whenever they arrive and wherever they end up.