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…

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…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.