Thursday, December 07, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh)

Death on the rail 

There's arguably not a lot to Agatha Christie's mysteries. She writes functional prose, sketches serviceable characters, delivers the occasional clever aphorism ("The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances"--which when you think about it sounds suspiciously like Arthur Conan Doyle). 

But the plots were amazing: Rube Goldberg devices that whirred furiously intricately, accelerating till all fall away to finally reveal a beautiful simplicity ("I'd never have guessed!" is the common reaction, though a slap of the forehead will suffice). Christie's plots take to the theater stage (The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution) and the big screen (Rene Clair's And Then There Were None--easily my favorite; and Sidney Lumet's 1974 Murder on the Orient Express) as if to the manner born; there's something about the spare (some would say 'thin') elegance of her fiction that renders it ready-made for translation to other media.

Now Branagh's version of Christie's murder masterpiece, about a retired Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot (played by the director himself: "Are kool Poirot--I do not slay ze lions mademoiselle") trapped on a snowbound train with over a dozen other suspicious types, played by an international cast of stars.  

It's grand entertainment stuffed with cracked pocket watches charred death threats a flowing scarlet kimono a gruesome murder a fake-oriental dagger and more eccentrics than you can fill a theater production with--for the most part; for the most part Branagh respects the text enough to let Christie's classic plot chug merrily along. Perhaps the movie's greatest nemesis isn't the ostensible murderer but the director himself, who when he isn't respecting the text likes to send the camera spinning thiswayandthat, unlikely action sequences studded haphazardly into the picture like so many candied currants in a ten-pound Christmas pudding, the better to keep the presumably ADHD audience awake.

Pity really. The visual climax of Lumet's adaptation arrived early with the train's departure and in that sequence you can see a--well not 'master' but definitely 'skilled and experienced artist'--at work. The station master strides down the length of the train the camera following and we're treated to the gleaming ironblack beauty of the great engine; a pause a musical cue the giant headlight winks to life like a monstrous cyclops eye and we're off. Little gestures signal to us that 1) we are in for a ride and 2) the director knows what he's doing.

Sometimes Branagh knows what he's doing. In his departure sequence however the camera introduces different characters in virtuoso tracking shots that follow them past the boarding gate into train corridors then rise above the ceiling to take in the surrounding bustle. Closeup of arguably the most suspicious character of all, Ratchett (Johnny Depp having the most fun with a role in years) as the rail car jerks sideways: instead of a buildup and spectacular sendoff the train is already leaving the station, and we're consoled with (largely CGI) shots of the express rolling through '20s Stamboul neighborhoods. Plenty of huff and puff ending with a disappointingly digital payoff. 

I'd say Lumet assembled the more stellar cast--I mean Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Richard Widmark against (much as I like most of em) Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Depp? Branagh does seem to have more fun with his performers--Dafoe's ostensibly racist professor gets considerable comic mileage out of his heavy Teutonic accent. 

Albert Finney needed a gimmick to distinguish himself from the carload of scenestealers he's stuck with so he plays Poirot as a veteran English actor playing a French (Belgian) sleuth--I suspect he took a cue from Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, but that's all right; Sellers took revenge by mercilessly parodying Finney and all other parlor detectives two years later in a brief but brutally funny scene in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (directed by Blake Edwards--who come to think of it would have been an inspired choice to direct an adaptation). 

Branagh does approach the reveal differently (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the picture!)--where Christie's novel and Lumet's movie kept the drama understated enough to allow Poirot his grand explanation in respectful silence Branagh plays up the tragedy of the situation, of the kidnapping-murder that destroys a family and sets the plot in motion. Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs. Hubbard delivers the crucial speech in response to Poirot's solution, but where I imagined a dreamy grande dame making a delicate plea for mercy Pfieffer steamrollers the moment with histrionics, dragging the scene and the rest of the picture down to the level of melodrama. That and all the silly gunplay--not just on the train but among the passengers seated along a table*--leaves one railing at the director's incompetence.

*(And what is that image supposed to mean? A subversion of the cliched crowd in a drawing room waiting to hear who's the killer? A line of ten little Indians? A parody of a court martial where a lone judge tries twelve defendants? Panelists in a beauty contest?)

 Lumet has roots in theater and it shows, his camera mostly playing out in long takes that allow the actor room to build and improvise. Most folks remember him shooting Ingrid Bergman's interview in a single five minute take, winning her an Oscar for Supporting Actress, but I remember best the actual murder and final champagne toast, both of which had this ritualistic aspect as if Poirot were witness to the practices of a witches' coven. 

Branagh who has strong roots in theater too isn't as generous alas--he loves his silly whirling camera too much--but does on occasion settle down enough to allow his performers to make an impression. He does play around with the notion of Poirot, mostly a caricature in the novels, here a softspoken eccentric obsessed with 'balance,' pining for a lost love, cursed with a continually fast-forwarded mind (in a movie full of badly done action sequences the only one to show any wit is the first, where Poirot presciently plants his walking cane--a detail added to the picture--firmly in a stone wall, to figure prominently when all hell breaks loose). Finney played his Belgian big; Branagh underplays slyly ("What's wrong with my proposition?" "If you will forgive me for being personal--I do not like your face.") allowing his mustache to step forward and dominate center stage.

Of course we have to mention that 'stache--a multi-limbed creature straight out of Hokusai with tentacles rooted in Branagh's upper lip, drawing sustenance for all I know (Branagh allows himself plenty of closeups and the whiskers look firmly planted). A spectacular bit of prosthetics or, for all I know, genuinely groomed and cultivated (edit: it's prosthetic), it's easily the production's single best special effect--possibly best of the year.

First published by Businessworld 12.1.17

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