Saturday Features

Whodunit? Who cares?

Though it stays faithful to the broad beats of Agatha Christie’s story, the new Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the iconic HerculePoirot, is unable to capture the tone and spirit of the source material

Dec 9, 2017-The danger of becoming used to seeing a certain actor play an iconic character for a considerable stretch of time—more so if that actor is particularly skilled and has made the part his own—is that you risk never truly being able to accept anyone else in a given role. I believe that’s what has happened to me with David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in the TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s celebrated detective novels. Suchet was Poirot incarnate: Not only was he a great fit for Christie’s descriptions of the quaint, egg-headed Belgian private eye—from his slicked-back hair, to the pointy little moustache he sported, down that penguin-shaped torso right to his shiny little shoes—he also brought complexity and gravitas to a role that could’ve easily gone over into out-and-out caricature. 

So, while there have been many different portrayals of Poirot by many different actors, on stage, film and television, among other media, I’ve been pretty stuck on Suchet. Suffice it, then, to say that I was very much aware of my own prejudices going into the new Murder on the Orient Express, the latest film adaptation of one of Christie’s most popular Poirot stories, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Now, the same case had previously made it to the big screen way back in 1974 courtesy of director Sidney Lumet with Albert Finney in the lead role, and while Finney was good and the film entertaining, it was outshone by Suchet’s 2010 retelling (I’m choosing to pretend the awful Alfred Molina mishap of 2001 just didn’t happen). This newest take falls even further behind: Despite boasting a starry cast and a far bigger production design budget than Poirot films have enjoyed thus far, and though he stays largely faithful to the broad beats of Christie’s source material, Branagh is unable to capture the tone and spirit. Indeed, there’s a distinct superficiality that threads its way through the story, and divests it of the urgency, intensity, and indeed, all the fun of the small, self-contained mysteries that the late author peddled. 

Naturally, with a story like this, I wouldn’t want to give away too many details of the plot. Let’s just say that Murder on the Orient Express once again places our detective in a confined setting—the titular train, going from Istanbul to Calais—wherein a crime—the titular murder—occurs. Poirot, “probably the greatest detective in the world,” is called on to solve the mystery, which basically involves examining all the passengers, taking into account the available clues, and finally, getting everyone together for the dramatic reveal. As usual, there is an assortment of possible suspects to pick from and to throw out red herrings to sufficiently delay gratification: There’s the Russian princess, her handmaid, the Austrian scientist, the governess, the English doctor, the lawyer, the missionary, the American widow, and a surfeit of others who have been packed into this one carriage–anyone of whom could be the killer. 

It should be apparent from a single viewing of the trailer for Murder that the sets, costumes and digital effects this time around are on a whole other level compared to what either the 1974 or 2010 renditions could hope to offer. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is gorgeous, filled with rich, sumptuous images of opulent Old World interiors and grand, scenic exteriors. But while Branagh & Co are keen to give the visuals a sense of breadth—the 65-millimetre format put to good work in this regard—they seem to forget that it was that very cramped smallness of the settings in the two previous iterations that had given the stories a certain atmosphere: A mix of intimacy and claustrophobia that worked to heighten the suspense.

What the trailer will also have most likely revealed is the sheer number of big-name stars who have been chosen to populate the cast here, including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley, among others. But, to be honest, it’s more distracting than engaging to have so many illustrious faces popping up with such regularity, particularly since the substance of their parts do little to justify their casting, more extended cameos than anything else, and not a single memorable one among them. This is partly because Branagh is extremely reluctant to let anyone into the spotlight other than himself—of course, one expects him to be front and centre as the lead, but there’s such an insistent self-indulgence about how he frames himself, often in close-ups, to the point where Murder can feel like a too-long acting show reel for the director. 

And that’s precisely the key problem here: Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green don’t appear to have fully digested how Christie had envisioned this character. Poirot was not, after all, merely the sum of his exaggerated accent and dandified mannerisms, and his acute powers of deduction. Though Murder does pay lip service to how Poirot’s rigid sense of right and wrong is enmeshed with his off-the-wall perfectionism, and ultimately contributes to the observational abilities that have made him famous—“I can only see the world as it should be. And when it is not, imperfection stands out like the nose on a face”––the treatment is rather cosmetic. That perfectionism, or OCD, also meant discomfort, even disconnect with the world–something Suchet, and I hope you’ll forgive me for repeating this, understood and portrayed with great subtlety. Indeed, there was a sense of vulnerability about that earlier iteration of the character that rendered him more human, rather than the straight-up, and far less interesting, hero that Branagh has conceived him to be here. 

Finally, let me talk about that moustache—a useful symbol of all that is wrong with the new film. Branagh has tried, valiantly, to bring Christie to a whole new generation of audiences, and his approach in this, much like the character’s facial hair, has been to glamorise and glitzify, go bigger and wider. He has, however, failed to take into account what it was about Poirot that appealed to people in the first place, and whether it was even necessary to expand his world at all—I, for one, would take that tiny waxed ‘stache’ over this bushy extravaganza any day. 

Published: 09-12-2017 09:35

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