A New Witness for the Prosecution

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I recently came across the 2016 BBC production of The Witness for the Prosecution on iTunes, and I was totally surprised to hear it existed. While I get bored by mystery series (same detective over and over gets old), I’m definitely entertained by a one-off movie or miniseries, but somehow I missed this one. This Agatha Christie adaptation was done by the same people who did And Then There Were None (2015), which I definitely enjoyed, so sign me up!

Now, Witness is famous as both a story, play, and 1957 movie. My experience is limited to super vague memories of stage managing in a play version back in junior high school — but luckily I had zero memory of the plot! On the off chance you’re like me, I’m going to try to avoid getting too much into the twists of the plot beyond the basic set-up.

Emily French (Kim Cattrall) is a rich older woman with a penchant for cute young boys.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Emily has an ominous cat, which, yasssssss!

She picks up Leonard Vole and makes him her latest pet; Leonard is clearly uncomfortable, especially since he’s with the beautiful and sad Romaine (Andrea Riseborough of W.E. and The Devil’s Whore), but he’s got trauma from his experiences soldiering in World War I and a guy’s gotta make a living.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Oh Leonard. Are we making good choices?

Emily’s lady’s maid Janet (Monica Dolan of Tipping the Velvet and Wolf Hall) is super disapproving of all of her lady’s men, particularly Leonard.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Janet thinks this is NOT A GOOD IDEA.

And then, Emily is found murdered and Leonard is accused. Enter lawyer John Mayhew (Toby Jones of AristocratsElizabeth IAmazing GraceA Harlot’s Progress, and basically every British costume-y production), who is barely making a living plus dealing with ruined lungs from the war.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Mayhew: Trying really hard to do the right thing, and not to cough up a lung.

The movie is definitely a courtroom drama, but there’s lots of scenes set elsewhere, like in the creepy smoggy streets of London (massive props to the set designers) and the dance hall where Romaine works as a performer.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

There’s definitely some of this …

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

… but also this too!

I definitely enjoyed watching the show, helped no doubt but my total lack of memory of the plot. But I thought the script was well done and the performances were quite moving, especially Jones as Mayhew, struggling emotionally on multiple levels, and Riseborough as the semi-inscrutable Romaine.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

What’s going on behind those eyes?

You get to see how the range of classes live, from Emily French’s super-rich, super Art Deco pad; to the small pokey rooms that Leonard and Romaine live in; to Mayhew’s threadbare, working-class home. Similarly, you get to see costumes from the ultra-fancy and glam on Emily to Romaine’s working-class street wear and sparkly (if tawdry) stage costumes, to Mayhew’s sad, sad wife in threadbare but presentable duds.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Livin’ the dream.

The costumes were designed by Claire Anderson (The Limehouse GolemLife in SquaresA Royal Night Out), and since I bought the series on iTunes, I got to watch a quick (10-minute) interview with her and cast members on the costuming, some of which is included in the video below. Basically she talks a lot about how the 1920s fashions had changed from pre-War styles, but then how the film references more 1910s fashions on some of the older and more traditional characters.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Glamour on stage …

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

… sensible in the courtroom.

In particular, I was interested in her discussion of how the uniform worn by maid Janet was more fashionable (because it would have been the employer’s choice) than she was probably comfortable with.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

But Janet! Look at your cute little buttons!

There was also some conversation with the lead hair stylist, who pointed out the differences between Kim Cattrall’s perfectly Marcel-waved and pincurled style, to Romaine’s less precise wave, to Janet and Mayhew’s wife’s more teens-era buns.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Side note, I didn’t love all the stretchy satin gloves, but that’s because they read modern and cheapy to me. Anyone know about 1920s glove materials?

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Romaine’s hair is much more done-at-home.

I REALLY liked some of the costume elements from the very end of the show, but as I’m not giving anything away, I’m not going to say (or show) anything else. Just, serious props.

Overall, I’d give the show a solid A and say that if you like this era, or murder mysteries, you should definitely check it out!

 

Have you caught The Witness for the Prosecution (2016)? What did you think?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

7 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I remember watching it and comparing it to its two previous incarnations – Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton & Elsa Lancaster in one & the other Dame Diana Rigg & Sir Ralph Richardson & Beau Bridges.
    I compared it poorly for acting but costumes in this one were better but will re-watch to see if it will change

    Reply
  2. thestoryenthusiast

    I recently saw the older version with Charles Laughton and was just totally blown away by the story. I haven’t seen this version yet (though I want to), but I can’t imagine it would be better than the original. But I’m sure this version excels in the costume department

    Reply
  3. elizacameron

    I found the ending interesting and thought the screenwriter and put their own spin on it but it turns out that this ending was actually what Christie had originally intended.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      This production actually goes back to Christie’s original short story, which she reworked into the play. The play ultimately became the 1957 movie and was also redone for television in the ’80s with Diana Rigg in the Dietrich role. Christie loved the Laughton version, even with its addition of the comic relationship between Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, which was not in her play.

      Plot and characters in the original story differ greatly from the later play and film versions.

      Reply
  4. Elisa

    I had vague mnemories of the plot, but I enjoyed this evrsion a lot anyway, bot fot the acting and the costumes.

    Reply

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