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Latest AcornTV Spin of 'Witness for the Prosecution' Focused, Darker
January 30, 2017  | By David Hinckley
 

If you’re happy with TV crime procedurals where the bad guys get nailed and justice wins in a crisp 42 minutes, don’t bother watching the latest incarnation of Witness for the Prosecution when it debuts on Acorn TV Monday.

Agatha Christie, who wrote Witness as a magazine short story in 1925 and later revisited it to change the ending, wasn’t in the habit of drawing either her characters or her stories that neatly.

Neither is writer Sarah Phelps, who adapted Witness after last year adapting Christie’s classic Ten Little Indians (retitled And Then There Were None). Phelps again adds her own touches and they tilt a bit toward the dark side.

Set in early 1920s London, Witness starts with a young and damaged World War I veteran, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), who is accused of murdering his rich and older paramour Emily French (Kim Cattrall, top).

All evidence seems to confirm his guilt. But his lawyer John Mayhew (Toby Jones, right), who to this point had handled small-time cases, pulls off a seemingly miraculous save that shifts the finger of guilt to French’s embittered housekeeper Janet Mackenzie (Monica Dolan).

Specifically, Mayhew finds suspicious shadows in the background of Vole’s girlfriend Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), whose account of the evening in question provides the most incriminating evidence against him.

The basic thrust of the story, with a minor-league lawyer struggling to somehow win a big-league case, echoes The Night Of, among other dramas.

Witness is more focused, however, and the British production gives it as lush a setting as a dark story set partly in courtrooms can have.

Told in one two-hour movie, like the theatrical version filmed in 1957 with Charles Laughton, Witness keeps both the characters and viewers off-balance.

We only get shadowy hints about whether we’re hearing the whole truth at a number of critical junctures. We learn only gradually the burden that Mayhew carries, and how it may be subtly affecting his work on Leonard Vole’s case. (Howle, right.)

There are few soft landings in Christie stories, and in Witness for the Prosecution several are exceptionally hard.

The whole shadowy, troubling tale also feels more powerful because the cast plays it at a deliberate, ominous pace. Riseborough gives a particularly memorable portrayal of an immigrant girl who makes her living by singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” while perched on a quarter-moon in a stage show.

The star, though, is Jones. While he may act in half the TV shows that come out of Britain these days, he’s singularly good as Mayhew, capturing precisely the way this case sneaks up on him and he sneaks up on us.

Acorn TV (www.acorn.tv) is primarily a streaming service that imports quality drama from English-speaking countries. Witness for the Prosecution provides another solid link in an admirable chain.

 
 
 
 
 
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