In these tumultuous times it’s nice to know that in the UK there are at least two ubiquitous artistes who apparently will never go out of style: Agatha Christie and Toby Jones. It is therefore not surprising that these two formidable forces of nature should meet, or rather, collide, and most entertainingly, in a pair of new standout releases from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment: a 2010 production of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (on DVD) and, even better, a superb 2016 adaptation of the no-frills version of THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (Blu-Ray), each a prominent, perennial Christie gem and both featuring the extraordinary Mr. Jones.
It was inevitable that the greatest Poirot in the History of Poirots, David Suchet, would eventually be tackling a version of his most famous case. And, thus, in 2010, it came to pass. Since the 1974 movie edition, every subsequent take on MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS has been a celebrity-studded excursion, tantamount to a Christie rendition of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It’s one “Hey, look who it is!” star-gazing sighting after another. And this lavishly produced tele-feature is no different. Glamming the support of the great Suchet are the likes of Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Chastain, Barbara Hershey, Eileen Atkins and, natch, Mr. Jones (as the unscrupulous American millionaire, portrayed by Richard Widmark in the ’74 big-screen pic).
I’m not going to go into the plot, save the basics. The title sets the stage as the rich-folks’ choo-choo chugs and halts in a snowbound wilderness somewhere in Eastern Europe. A reluctant Poirot, surly and not really wanting to deal with any crime matters, is recruited to attempt to solve a passenger’s murder. The problem isn’t a suspect, it’s a trainload full of ’em.
Even before the first “all aboard!” is sounded (the Aleppo set-up), this is a fun, suspenseful, super-enjoyable ride – the second-best way for folks to spend a wintry evening under the covers. The direction (Philip Martin) is crisp, the writing (Stewart Harcourt) is a sharp as the cheddar hors d’oeuvre served in the dining compartment, the production values (Jeff Tessler, Miranda Cull, Sheena Napier) and music (Christian Henson) sumptuous and the photography (Alan Almond) downright gorgeous. Strategically released on DVD to coincide with the newest Kenneth Branagh EXPRESS, this Suchet deco-delight is a tough one to beat.
While EXPRESS is an undeniably intriguing, entertainment, it is the 2016 adaptation of Christie’s other world-famous work, THE WITNESS FOR FOR THE PROSECUTION, that wins the Jones v. Jones stakes hands down. This is a WITNESS unlike one you’ve ever seen. How so? Well, because it’s not based on the renowned stage version or the celebrated 1958 Billy Wilder movie. It’s gleaned from the original 1923 short story – a far different and somber cry from the rollicking post-WWII reboots.
Taking place in real time — Britain after the Great War — WITNESS does not presents us with the curmudgeonly barrister-protagonist so dear to our hearts. The John Mayhew here is NOT the super-successful legendary defense attorney. He is a struggling, failing near-impoverished lackey, living a sad existence in a loveless marriage and plagued by a crippling case of asthma, contracted when he was gassed during the war.
This Mayhew doesn’t choose his clients from the elite list; he trolls the prisons searching the dregs of society who cannot afford any legal assist. It is during one of these desperate scavenger hunts that he comes across a man no lawyer will touch – yup, you guessed it, Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), accused of murdering Mrs. French a rich, older woman.
Mayhew senses that this unfortunate may have been dealt as many lousy cards as he has. A war vet who rescued Romaine Heiler (Andrea Riseborough), a beauteous German waif he found in the trenches, Vole has had nothing going for him, save his dashing good looks. Romaine, the German woman he saved and later wed, is now working in a second-rate music hall, yearning (but never attaining) solo singer status, due to the bigotry her coworkers hold against her Teutonic heritage.
That Mrs. French is not the gullible, lonely widow portrayed in the later WITNESS evocations is another revelation. She is a cougar, whose mantra is “I like young men,” and pays increasingly handsomely for their favors. She is also Kim Cattrall, amazing, sensuous and just wonderful in the role. It should be noted that her devoted maid Janet (Monica Dolan) is also not motivated by sheer loyalty; she has a lesbian obsession for her boss.
All of these factors play key roles, as the case goes to court and the newspapers go wild. Mayhew himself begins to get some play, even though he needed to align himself with Sir Charles Carter (David Haig) a mercenary scumbag of a lawyer.
When a mysterious woman comes forward with a scandalous tale concerning Romaine, who has now turned against her husband, Mayhew jumps for the bait and overnight becomes London’s heroic headline king.
Ah, but things are not as they seem, and Mayhew’s new lavish lifestyle and practice soon makes him wish for his days in the tenements – the result of a surprise and unwanted reunion at a posh resort; this is coupled by a shocking disclosure from the barrister’s wife (Hayley Carmichael), who venomously spits out the reason for her spousal hatred. The ending is totally unexpected, and, frankly, quite shattering.
THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is an engrossing, first-rate thriller that, like EXPRESS, benefits from top-notch participation in all areas, specifically the direction (Julian Jarrold), the writing (Sarah Phelps), the cinematography (Felix Wiedemann), the spectacular period set/costume design (Nick Palmer, David Bowes, Liz Simpson, Claire Anderson), the music (Paul Englishby) and, of course, the acting. Howle and Risenborough are terrific as the Voles; ditto Dolan as lascivious Janet, Carmichael as the brittle, acidic Mrs. Mayhew and Haig as the bastard barrister. But it is Cattrall and Jones who make this a must-see, must-own platter for mystery/Christie fans. The Blu-Ray, we should add, in keeping with Acorn tradition, is a widescreen knockout.
No kidding, folks, this is already one of the best releases of the New Year. And if you think my testimony may be biased, well, I guess I plead guilty!
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios. CAT # AMP-2616. SRP: $19.99
THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Mammoth Screen/Agatha Christie Productions. CAT # AMP-2547. SRP: $34.99.