Thursday, November 9, 2017

KENNETH BRANAGH ENSURES "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS" TRAVELS A DIFFERENT ROUTE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in the 2017 version of
 MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. (copyright 2017)

In 2013, the Agatha Christie estate signed with talent agency William Morris Endeavor (WME) to remake her works and revive her reputation as one of the greatest female authors of all time. A generation or two had lost track of her works as well as the sterling reputation she fostered as the world’s foremost mystery writer. Thus, the estate struck a deal to remake her classics through film, television, and digital media. And one of the first efforts is a shiny new remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It pulls into the station this weekend, and it reminds the world that when it comes to procedurals, no one can match the panache of Dame Agatha. And while this new adaptation, directing by and starring Kenneth Branagh, doesn’t come close to matching the 1974 classic film, it still is a whole lot of frothy fun.

In some respects, Christie’s original material is so delicious, it’s hard not to savor her twisty storytelling, no matter how it’s been updated or reimagined. Her story here is set aboard the opulent Orient Express in 1934, a luxury passenger train that provides a gorgeous and elegant setting for her to juxtapose a nasty little murder against. Christie just loved to take the piss out of the upper class, thus she always placed manicured men and high society ladies in glorious settings that were soon ruined by a distasteful and low-class murder. And whether it was her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot or her doddering dowager Miss Marple, Christie would always bring the rich and pampered down by the righteous fingering of her intrepid sleuths. And indeed, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is one of Poirot’s most incredible take-downs.

The murder victim here is an evil wolf in Saville Row clothing named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp). He pretends to be a rich businessman, traveling the world over and collecting art, yet he comes by his money in the bloodiest of fashions. The gauche and graceless creep used to be a gangster, and his most notorious crime was in the kidnapping and murder of a little rich girl named Daisy Armstrong. Based loosely on the famous Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932, Ratchett got away with the child's murder, as well as all the ransom money. But in this story, justice will soon take him for a ride.

His mob ties and sorted past make him one very paranoid traveler. On the train trip bound for London from Istanbul, Ratchett offers fellow passenger Poirot (Branagh) 10 grand to be his bodyguard. Over a shared confection in the dining car, Poirot refuses by telling his potential employer, “I do not like your face.” At least one other person on the train doesn’t like it very much either and ensures that Ratchett receives more just desserts. Later that evening, when he asleep in his cabin, the child killer is stabbed 12 times in the chest.

Poirot is called into service by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), the train company’s big shot aboard, and the Belgian detective realizes in no time at all that he has more suspects than he can shake his silver topped cane at. The collected assortment of potential murderers traveling in the Calais coach include a brash widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), an earnest teacher (Daisy Ridley), a strict missionary (Penelope Cruz), a Russian royal (Judi Dench), her assistant (Olivia Colman), a black doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a count (Sergei Polunin), his countess (Lucy Boynton), a German professor (Willem Dafoe), a car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo),  the train’s attendant (Marwan Kenzari), along with the dead’s man secretary (Josh Gad) and manservant (Derek Jacobi). Whodunit? Whydunit? And Whendunit?

Original caricature by Jeff York of Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot in the 1974 version of
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. (copyright 2017).


For the bulk of the film, Poirot interviews each passenger. He’s got some time as the train is snowbound from a nighttime avalanche, but he needs to find the killer quick before the local authorities get their hands on the case. Most all of this is in the book, as well as in the classic ’74 film stunningly directed by Sidney Lumet, but from there, Branagh’s trip on the train takes a few different routes.

For starters, Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot indulges in some key differences from her written pages. Christie described the detective this way in “The Mystery of the Bagdad Chest”:

“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendor of his famous mustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy.

Yes, Branagh plays a well-dressed, inveterate dandy, but after that, he’s quite different. The acclaimed British actor is still leading man handsome, lean, and he's quite dashing here. That’s hardly the sinister little troll often seen offending those he interrogates in the books. Poirot’s fastidious little mustache is nowhere to be found this time. Instead, his facial hair is a thick, wrap-around mustache more President Chester A. Arthur than prissy European. Branagh also makes his Poirot exceedingly physical, running all about, traipsing out in the cold, and wielding his cane as if it were a light saber. It’s hard to imagine the previous Poirot’s of Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, and David Suchet working up such a sweat.

One can clearly see the influence of the Benedict Cumberbatch SHERLOCK series which updated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective in similarly aggressive and action-oriented ways. This may infuriate some Christie purists, but it’s actually no less egregious than the numerous bald Belgians played in the past by actors like Suchet and even Tony Randall back in 1965’s THE ALPHABET MURDERS. The truth is, Christie described Poirot as having the appearance of a full head of hair. Thus, that point goes to Mr. Branagh, and overall, his Poirot is one that I'm certain Christie would admire. He's savvy, elegant, righteous, and Branagh gives a fully is engaging performance. 

Clearly, the filmmaker has set out to present a new take on her old material. Most of his choices as a director or actor that deviate from the source material still work here because of he keeps Christie's core mystery the same. Still, it is interesting to note all the ways he’s let screenwriter Michael Green freely play with the Christie canon. Colonel Arbuthnot is now not only a black man, but he's the doctor present on the train, eliminating the need for Dr. Constantine from the original prose. Christie’s digs at racism and sexism, served mostly as subtext in the original story, have been moved to the forefront here. And even the detective’s gathering all the suspects into a drawing room to announce the murderer is given a fresh spin as Branagh's Poirot addresses all of them outside where they’re seated at a long table in the train tunnel. It’s a visual that is more reminiscent of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” than the Christie cliché. 

The ending still is a boffo surprise for those who don’t know it, and to his credit, Green actually hides the inevitable longer than in most previous filmed versions. Branagh ensures that the film looks like a million bucks and showcases the train decked out in all its glory. There’s a great shot of a waiter measuring the distance from the end of a spoon to the end of the dining table. Indeed, they still do that on the train as I had the privilege of vacationing on the Orient Express a decade ago and I saw that practice first-hand.

Branagh does make some unfortunate errors in his telling though. For starters, he all but glosses over the backstory of the Daisy Armstrong case, giving it short shrift in both the discussion of it, as well as in flashback. Shown in the middle of the film as black and white home movies, he fails to deliver the sense of the scandalous murder's enormity on the nation and its lingering aftermath. (The Lindbergh kidnapping was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day.) The original film did a brilliant job setting up all this important exposition in the very opening and this new version suffers mightily in that comparison.  

The director also doesn't make the train particularly treacherous. Sure, there’s a dangerous chase on the bridge underneath the train, and the snowy exteriors provide a certain amount of danger, but the train never seems like a shadowy, claustrophobic setting that could easily enable crime. Saddest of all, most of the characters in this telling register more as types than people. Thus, we don't feel particularly invested in any of their fates. Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and most notably, Josh Gad, shine but few else make much of an impression. Bit players like Polunin and Boynton barely register at all. And why was Penelope Cruz's presence squandered so? She’s dramatically cast against type here playing a rigid stiff of a Christian harpy, but does she even have eight lines? It’s the biggest missed opportunity of the film to give the likes of her, as well as other brilliant character actors like Dench, Dafoe and Colman so little to do.


Finally, Branagh rushes his finale and for those who’ve never experienced the story on the page or screen, the gist of it all may be more than a little lost. It is one of Christie’s most intricately plotted denouements, and Lumet famously took 35 minutes for Poirot to explain the who, why, what, and where of the crime in the ’74 classic. It played as a spellbinding explanation of all that had occurred, as well as a masterly actor’s showcase for Finney who received a richly deserved Oscar nod for Best Actor. Branagh is an actor who could equal that monologue but chooses instead to settle the story’s score in about half the time. This should be the scene most relished in the film, instead it relinquishes to the attention deficit in today's modern audiences.

Yet, at the end of it all, this is still Christie and it’s one of her greatest yarns no matter what the differences or mistakes made in this version. All her stories are intricate puzzles that dazzle, and this one shines especially so. For those who think television’s CSI is a great procedural or count THE BLACK LIST as a tale with amazing twists and turns, they need to see this MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. And then they should see the 1974 version to be wowed even more.

It makes one look forward to even more of Christie's works back on the big screen. (Her other Poirot standout DEATH ON THE NILE is teased as a possible sequel at the end.) And in the year of Wonder Woman, and various actresses bringing thugs like Harvey Weinstein down, it’s opportune to realize just how important a female writer Christie was in her time and still is today. Not only was she an incredible novelist and short story impresario, but she managed to be so during a period in history when women had barely earned the right to vote. To add even more perspective to her feats, Christie signed her works using her own moniker, not some bogus male pen name as often was the case with female writers in the day. She was and is an utter legend, and ignoring her greatness, courage, and Herculean achievements, well, that would be the real crime.

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