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.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.