Murder on the Orient Express
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 either to 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 first revealed 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 staging 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). He’s 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 episode 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 strong, 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.