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Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (2017; Directed by Kenneth Branagh)

The one true highlight, and by far the most successful feature, of Murder on the Orient Express is Hercule Poirot’s mustache. Fulsome and florid, it curves across the upper lip of Kenneth Branagh – who plays Agatha Christie’s refined and fastidious master detective as well as directs this new screen version of his most famous case – and curls ever-further up his cheeks like a garter snake cradling a bird’s egg. This is no thin, manicured pencil-stache, but a deep and broad explosion of expressive facial hair bursting with life and silvery truth. This mustache is a powerful river surging over a cataract, a shining band of precious metal, a swelling mountain range rising from the flat surface of a topographical map. It’s fascinating, mesmerizing, all-absorbing. A magnificent magum opus of a mustache. You can lose yourself in it, find yourself plunging into its hirsute abyss until all sense of self, of being, of past, present, and future, are swallowed by its compelling oblivion.

Somewhere in the wavering mists beyond the Mustache to End All Mustaches, there is a movie, too. Branagh’s Poirot, the famed Belgian master detective sought the world over to untangle the thorniest mysteries and riddles of the fashionable 1930s, is first shown theatrically solving a missing-relic conundrum involving clerics of the three Abrahamic religions before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. This cold open is hardly Christie canon, having been invented by screenwriter Michael Green in adapting the popular 1934 detective novel, but it fulfills a clear purpose: it slickly introduces the fussy but brilliantly perceptive Poirot (who insists with obsessive-compulsiveness on his breakfast eggs being exactly the same height, but benevolently declines to blame the Arab boy who rushes them to him for it) to a modern film audience perhaps unaccustomed to his personality and to his Sherlock Holmes-like clever deductions.

That personality and those deductions get a thorough workout on board the iconic titular luxury train, which conveys Poirot and a rogue’s gallery of mismatched but increasingly interconnected passengers across Europe from Istanbul to Calais on the English Channel. Snowbound after an avalanche in the Balkan mountains derails the train, Poirot must unravel the secrets of his fellow passengers to resolve a confounding murder with a dark connection to one of the most notorious crimes of the age.

If the plot summary seems circumspect, that’s because whodunits like Christie’s deserve a minimum of pre-exposition to lay out their web of clues and revelations to maximum effect. Christie’s detective fiction is an elaborate period-specific pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more legendary Holmes stories (and Murder specifically draws liberally from the torn-from-the-headlines case of the Lindbergh baby), but its clever clockwork surprises merit the respect of an absence of spoilers at least. Green’s script and Branagh’s direction trust in the witty labyrinth of breadcrumbs left by Christie, embellishing minimally. Some of these embellishments, such as quick chase sequences, tussles, and climactic gun drama, flatter conventional modern audience sensibilities and offer easy tension and frisson in predictable but hyper-competent forms. Other embellishments, such as parenthetical references to (the thoroughly sexless) Poirot’s lost love Katherine, present as extremely tacked-on, or, in the case of flashbacks to the projection of what appear to be 1930s home movies (?), completely unrealistic.

Such criticisms should not be construed as being dismissive of Branagh’s direction, which is generally strong in technical and aesthetic terms. His camera impressively conveys sweep and scope and dynamism to a scaled-up locked-room mystery set almost entirely on board a luxurious but claustrophobic train (which, for much of the movie, isn’t even moving). The luxury is depicted with a lush vignette-montage of tableaux of polishing and arranging, while the claustrophobia is emphasized in a single-take overhead shot which allows the examination of the crime scene like a schematic diagram, and is equally overcome with long horizontal tracking shots through or alongside the train cars. Branagh uses the camera smartly and expertly to maximize his mid-range budget and triumphantly surmount the potential feeling that Murder on the Orient Express might be merely television-level in scope, a smallish product inherently unworthy of cinematic scale (let alone old-fashioned, widescreen-friendly 65mm cameras, which Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos used to shoot the film). This is a film so well-made and well-shot that one cannot but laugh off and forgive an indulgently over-clever choice like Branagh’s  self-conscious reference to a seminal work of visual art in the climactic reveal scene (you’ll know it when you see it, I would wager).

But for all of Kenneth Branagh’s keen and professional work behind the camera to help Murder on the Orient Express succeed, he often can’t help himself, can’t help Branaghing, behind but especially in front of the camera. Branagh’s youthful burst of popularly and critically successful Shakespeare film adaptations in the late ’80s and early ’90s are far enough in the cinematic past to be semi-forgotten, but then so is the preening, egocentric excess of their director and star boldly self-evident in them. It’s taken Branagh two decades to work himself back into Hollywood’s good graces as a profitable filmmaker after the misbegotten Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his indulgent four-hour Hamlet in the mid-’90s, helming blockbuster fare like Thor and Cinderella like a dutiful soldier while rebuilding his on-camera performance cred with his starring role in the moody Norse-noir grit of the BBC detective drama Wallander. He even allowed himself to be seen to laugh at the heroic, self-involved golden-boy persona he built his fame upon (no wonder his chest-beating Henry V is so good, after all) as the foppish, self-promoting Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie.

But Kenneth Branagh making movies with all of his toys and all of his gold can be a fraught proposition. In a lot of ways, Murder on the Orient Express should be a perfect fit for Branagh’s toolset at the moment: it allows him to tap his established skills of historical recreation, balancing literary origins with cinematic language, familiarity with the detective genre, and recently-won confidence with CG effects. And, honestly, in many ways, his Murder on the Orient Express is a success, not least of which is his use of his international all-star cast (Branagh has always been good with ensembles, no doubt a holdover from his theatre days). Branagh is canny enough to tap into Daisy Ridley’s poise and self-possession, to trust Penelope Cruz’s eyes to do the work which her mouth (when it speaks English, anyway) can never quite manage, to let Willem Dafoe fruitfully pivot from duplicitousness to impassioned decency, to work Josh Gad into a nervous sweat, to incorporate young talents like Tom Bateman and Leslie Odom Jr. alongside decorated acting vets like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, to realize that Johnny Depp is really only useful as a despicable slimeball anymore, and to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in a damn movie already!

But, you know, Branagh gotta Branagh. Holy Mustache aside, his perfectly well-played Poirot sticks pretty closely to the textual model and thus is barely differentiated from the iconic screen version of the character crafted by David Suchet for years on television. But Kenneth Branagh is directing a movie starring himself again, and beneath Poirot’s prim, sophisticated manifestation, his glee at being the centre of attention again is palpable. Agatha Christie’s mysteries are often just as interested (if not more so) in the eccentric figures clustering around an unsolved crime than the archetypal detective trying to solve it, but this Murder on the Orient Express is thoroughly Poirot-centric, and therefore thoroughly Branagh-centric as well. Poirot is always the smartest boy in the room, but is just odd and self-effacing enough (he is, after all, Belgian) to transcend the arrogance and presumption that status entails. In Murder on the Orient Express, as in his peak-period Shakespeare adaptations, Kenneth Branagh is once again the smartest boy in the room. He revels in it, and wants us to know that he does. In such conditions, the work itself suffers, inevitably. Like Poirot’s mustache (here we go again with the mustache-as-metaphor for the larger film!), Kenneth Branagh is just a bit too much for the movie he’s a part of.

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Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
  1. December 28, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Ha! Very true, but I will always be a Branagh fan-girl. He can gloat and preen and out-Branagh people any day of the week, and I will go “squeee”! Oh. And the cinematography was almost breathtaking.

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