Skip to main content

Hercule Poirot. I do not slay the lions.

Murder on the Orient Express
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Sydney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express could scarcely be called the pinnacle of his career, but (Sir) Kenneth Branagh’s latest version of Agatha Christie’s (probably) best known novel (in the world) invites new found appreciation of its merits. Ken’s film is a bauble, and like much of his work in cinema, it’s big and showy and overblown and empty. You need to fill that space with something, but unfortunately neither his Poirot nor Michael Green’s screenplay does the job.


His Mr Poirot, then. I commented of Albert Finney’s (Oscar nominated) incarnation that it was very much a performance, rather than a character brought to life: entertaining, but indulgent and ham-laden. Ken doesn’t really have that facility for excess. Much as he has been hailed (a heralding that gradually drifted, despite his keenness for adapting any Shakespeare going, but still bagged him a knighthood) as the next Olivier, he’s basically too normal and nice to turn Poirot into something chewy and appetising. Hence the enormous tache, designed to do much of the heavy lifting.


Agatha Christie’s only beef with Finney was with the whiskers, and she considered the picture the best adaptation of her work (she died two years later, but I don’t think the face furniture was the culprit); one doubts she’d have been so generous towards either Ken’s embodiment, double hamster, or the movie as a whole. In the pantheon of Poirots, David Suchet’s finickity TV incarnation is generally seen as the one to beat, although for me it’s Peter Ustinov’s genuine eccentric every time.


Ken talks a lot about “leetle cakes”, does some clever business with his cane, and seems more concerned with balance – treading in a sole-soiled cowpat with his other foot –  than OCD tendencies – like maybe cleaning the dirtied shoe of poo – but his Poirot is never any more than, how you say, adequate. He’s also granted the feeblest in attempts to “beef up” the character, as Hercule lets it be known that, despite his apparent detachment from normal human emotions, he did – once – love, as evidenced by a framed photo of Katherine he takes with him everywhere. I’m guessing this is Michael Green’s addition (since he gets the sole screenplay credit), and one wonders how long it will be before the bubble bursts on his current status as a go-to franchise darling (neither Alien: Covenant nor Blade Runner 2049 did terrific business, so at least Logan evens up the bankability odds a bit). I was half-expecting a reveal that Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) was the author of all Poirot’s pain, but mercifully Green resisted.


Green has, of course, assigned himself one of Christie’s most ridiculous plots, whereby it becomes clear quite early on that there’s either an enormous conflation of coincidence on the titular train or the eventual conclusion reached, however unlikely, is the only possible one. As far as I can tell, the sequence of motivational studies and reveals (despite various character shifts and inventions) isn’t that different to either the book or the previous film, and yet the unfolding conspicuously lacks any grip or tension, or the appreciation that Poirot is really required to apply the little grey cells to get to the bottom of things.


A good mystery well told will still offer pleasure on repeat viewing, so the issue isn’t that I know the plot (I still find Evil Under the Sun enormous fun whenever I catch it, for example). The problem is, for all that Green and Branagh have finessed the plot, it’s at best serviceably told. Ken’s more obsessed with elaborate camera moves (and, yes, some Dutch angles) than really getting his teeth into the plot and character, and even those camera moves – how many crane or overhead shots or doubling images through glass is enough? – don’t feel intrinsic to the picture’s overall design, but rather – as has been evident throughout his career – whatever seemed a good idea at the time. There are a few exceptions – the overhead scene in which Ratchett’s cabin is examined from the corridor effectively conjures what you can’t see – but generally the much-remarked upon use of 65mm fails to wow.


Indeed, one has to doff one’s cap in respectful awe of just how far Ken has risen on such unenviable cinematic talents. Thor gave him ready-made success in Hollywood that had eluded him following the absurdly bad Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (all set to be as big a hit as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula – until it wasn’t) on the back of the sleeper that was Dead Again (a risible film noir homage that gave us or Ken’s signature Dutch angles and crazy swirling camera). He followed that with a Jack Ryan reboot wash-up, but then rallied with another no-brainer in Disney’s Cinderella (in fairness, both Thor and Cinders suit his lack of subtlety). Orient Express ought really to be acing the same points, but Ken’s too hung up on the idea that he’s some kind of visual stylist. 


The picture, ironically, is at its best when it isn’t sticking to the Christie, predominately during an extended introductory act (It’s quite some time before we even board the choo-choo), introducing us to various future suspects and giving Poirot a case in conclusion as his introduction (because he’s just like Bond or Indy, don’t you know; that murder on the Nile we sign off with may or may not happen; this picture didn’t cost the earth, but on the other hand, I doubt that it will be quite the franchise-spinning hit Fox might hope for).  


For Lumet, Orient Express was a break with his more familiar crime genre trappings, and he delivered a relatively glossy, heightened environment in response; compared to Branagh’s version it’s positively grounded and gritty, though. Indeed, an artificiality pervades the frequent “exterior” sequences (why, exactly, is Poirot walking atop a carriage in the snow? Is he un imbécile? Probably for the same reason he gets an inappropriate action scene with an angry doctor). 


One of the pleasures of Christie stagings has always been the flashbacks accompanying the theories or thesis, but they’re in scant supply here, and when we do see them (the murder) they’re disappointingly perfunctory. Further, the move from a carriage to a tunnel entrance line-up for the big reveal – a Last Supper restaging, apropos of nothing –  is a particular miscalculation and damp squib, not to mention the appalling score from Patrick Doyle, tinkling his piano over the back of every goddam scene regardless, that rises to a meaningful “crescendo” as the double-hamstered Belgian reaches his moral decision over the fates of the guilty; since the crime and characters have no weight, neither does his choice (as it plays out here, you think he made the wrong one).


There are some interesting choices in the mix, though. Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), in contrast to the general trend towards period-inaccuracy in the presentation of race in TV  and movies, has reached his position in spite of prejudice, rather than through the filmmakers studiously ignoring its existence, and faces it daily. 


It’s questionable how consciously based on his current public profile the casting of Depp as the villain is (in as much as there’s a very vocal Internet army who despise him, but most of them loathed him even before Amber Heard, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales still made more money than anyone who wants to call him washed up is willing to admit), but he’s really good in the role, limited as it is, and the scene in which he attempts to obtain Poirot’s services might be the only truly successful dramatic scene in the entire movie. That said, it isn’t terribly clear what sort of child murderer-come-rug salesman Ratchett is supposed to be; he just does bad stuff because that’s what he does, and that should be enough for us, it seems.


The impressions the cast makes are largely based on whether there’s anything interesting on the page, and compare and contrast accordingly with the Lumet version. Michelle Pfeiffer’s very good, but Caroline Hubbard isn’t terribly engaging, even as a performance within a performance (a similar problem for Lauren Bacall); so too, Josh Gad scores as Ratchett’s secretary McQueen (just as Anthony Perkins did in an entirely different spin on the part). As usual, Ken casts Derek Jacobi, but alas, he isn’t a patch on John Gielgud as Ratchett’s manservant.


There’s as little there for Dame Judi Dench as there was for Wendy Hiller as Princes Dragomiroff (aside from the unlikely sight of her stabbing Johnny Depp). Likewise, Penelope Cruz in the part that snagged Ingrid Bergman an Oscar. Meanwhile, Daisy Ridley is mostly forgettable as Mary Debenham, whereas Vanessa Redgrave practically stole the show in the 1974 version. Tom Bateman, with whom I wasn’t familiar, makes a strong showing as the movie’s Hastings-type, though, there’s a nice scene where Poirot interviews Olivia Coleman in German so the Princess can’t understand, and Willem Dafoe is having great fun, first as a racist professor and then his real Pinkerton’s identity.


It would be a cliché of reviewing to suggest Ken’s Express runs out of steam after chugging along nicely throughout the first act, but it’s sadly the case. I’m not so sure the supporting cast matter as much – although obviously, you want a mix of recognisable names in there – as the detective himself, and Ken did the movie an even greater disservice by casting himself than taking the directing gig. Murder on the Orient Express can’t help come across as a vanity project, but it’s one that betrays hubris rather than justified ego.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delightsmay well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vie…

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…