Director/Actor: Kenneth Branagh
By Roderick Heath
Kenneth Branagh, damn his eyes. Few figures in contemporary film remain as eclectically gifted and perpetually vexing. The energetic-to-a-fault Irish-born thespian-turned-filmmaker’s directorial career has provoked acclaim and irritation since his electrifying debut in 1989 with Henry V transformed a 28-year-old best known for his stage work into a major cinematic talent. Branagh confirmed with the success of his second Shakespeare film, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), that he had a unique way with popularising the Bard on film. But his output in this period, as he seemed determined to stretch and express his talents at a breakneck pace, proved hit and miss, and his promise never quite translated into the sort of career his debut signalled, even as he continued to go from strength to strength as an actor. His movies in the prolific decade following his gambit included the flop of his capital-R Romantic film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and the swift submergence of his radically odd extrapolation of Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), as well as the violently uneven yet truly epic-scale Hamlet (1996), interspersed with smaller, more personal, spasmodically effective works like Dead Again (1991), Peter’s Friends (1992), and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Branagh’s directorial style, his adoration of oversized gestures and scarce-restrained theatrical energy, simply doesn’t fit into the current pop cultural paradigm any more than his love for Shakespeare: it’s the antithesis of cool. The attempt to crossbreed Shakespeare with old Hollywood musical idealisation with Love’s Labour’s Lost did, for the six people who saw it including me, help bring all Branagh’s works into focus as covert musicals – the swooping camerawork, the dialogue delivered in quick, dexterous, recitative-like refrains, the actors perpetually propelled about his frame-stages in giddy motion.
Two surprisingly excellent films in the mid-2000s, a TV-debuting version of As You Like It and a dazzling take on The Magic Flute (both 2006) seemed to revive Branagh’s fortunes, but the dismissal of his pointless remake of Sleuth (2007) proved he was still a frustratingly patchy creative force. Then, suddenly and unexpected ease, Branagh reinvented himself as an A-list director in Hollywood with 2011’s successful yet underrated Wagnerian power ballad of a superhero flick, Thor. He followed it with two profitable pieces of studio hackwork, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) and Cinderella (2015), that nonetheless bore weird flickers throughout of Branagh’s cavalier romanticism and melodramatic bravura. What other director could find the same traces of bruised humanity and noble instinct in Tom Clancy’s dullard CIA hero as he finds in a Shakespearean king? Murder on the Orient Express is the latest of Branagh’s career-long efforts to invest a hoary property with a new lustre, and it feels like a homecoming, and a restatement of personal delight in film, within the apparently cosy confines of familiar material. Along with Ten Little Indians, the novel is surely Agatha Christie’s most famous, distinguished by one of her most cunningly crafted and ingenious plots and a great setting, one that shares in common with Ten Little Indians and her legendary play The Mousetrap the quality of claustrophobic isolation.
The plot, as you probably already know: sometime in the early 1930s, Belgian-born, UK-residing private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, inevitably) departs Jerusalem after performing a swift and nifty piece of deduction that defuses a nascent religious riot. Travelling by boat to Constantinople (or Istanbul; either way it’s a Turkish delight on a moonlit night), Poirot meets the keen and lovely governess Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and the stoic, upright soldier-turned physician Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr) on the same boat: although affecting to be strangers, Poirot notes their peculiar intimacy. Once arriving in the great city, Poirot encounters a friend, the cheerfully dissolute Aynesworth (Gerard Horan), nephew of the Orient Express’s owner. When the onerous call of duty summons Poirot back to London, Aynesworth promises to gain him a berth on the very next Express to London, a promise that proves difficult to fulfil as the train’s first class compartment proves to be booked solid, a bizarre event in the winter season. Nonetheless Poirot gains a berth, and finds himself thrust in with a motley collective including Mary, Arbuthnot, talkative husband-hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), White Russian exile Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her paid companion Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), hot-tempered Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addict ballerina wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton), cheery automobile magnate Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), sternly moralistic missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), and flinty, racist Austrian academic Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe).
The greyest of these eminences is snake-eyed American art broker Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), travelling with a manservant, Masterman (Derek Jacobi), and business manager, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). Poirot’s presence is unnoticed by some of the passengers who exist in their own little bubbles of angst, like Pilar and the Andrenyis, but catches the eye of others, including Hubbard, who seems to zero in on Poirot as an eligible bachelor, and Ratchett, who offers Poirot a lucrative stint guarding him from threats, as he keeps receiving threatening letters, and is worried about the possible repercussions of selling some suspect wares to a group of colourful Italian gentlemen. Soon, the train is trapped in the mountains by an avalanche, and after a night of strange occurrences, Ratchett is discovered in his compartment riddled with stab wounds after an apparently frenzied attack, and Poirot finds himself obliged to identify the killer. Soon the problem Poirot uncovers involves less the question of who would have the motive to kill Ratchett than which one of the plentiful potential assassins did not have a very good reason to kill the man, who was actually an infamous gangster named Cassetti. Cassetti was known to Poirot through underworld whisperings that he staged the kidnap for ransom and subsequent murder of the child of a famous aviator, John Armstrong, and caused the ensuing destruction of many lives connected to the crime and the benighted Armstrong family.
Sidney Lumet of course filmed the book to great effect in 1975, an unexpected swerve into ritzy entertainment for a director more usually associated with raw-nerve realism. Lumet’s film mediated old-fashioned storytelling values with an invested level of New Wave Hollywood grit, and opened with an inimitable prologue, depicting in monochrome visuals staging events then reported in newspaper headlines set to piercingly eerie music, depicting the central crime that drives many of the events in the subsequent story, the kidnapping of the Armstrong child and the event’s evil consequences. Branagh wisely never tries to outdo this scene. More recently, the story had also been adapted as a telemovie showcasing David Suchet’s beloved characterisation in the role of Christie’s sublimely methodical, ever-dapper detective, although the later entries featuring Suchet lacked the lush, easy style of the late ‘80s TV series in which he pioneered the role. So what need, if any, for another take? Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green answer the question by taking an approach similar to the one Branagh took with Henry V and Victor Frankenstein, trying to see if there’s another layer to the drama under what everyone knows about them. Branagh successfully located the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero, usually drowned out by playing up the patriotic fervour in the play, in his moral guilt and anguished reckoning with the distinction between his place as man and role as king and symbol – an investigative mode that Branagh surprisingly returns to here.
Another obvious reason to return to this material is that whodunits are everywhere again at the moment. This mostly true on television, whether in Britain with their many procedurals like Midsomer Murders, Canada, with The Murdoch Mysteries, Australia’s The Miss Fisher Mysteries and The Doctor Blake Mysteries, as well as blockbuster Hollywood properties like the CSI and NCIS franchises. For myself, I’m not the biggest fan of them, although I can certainly enjoy them when they’re well done. But it’s a relentlessly mechanical, formulaic fictional mode that often tends to boil the great drama of life and death down to mere puzzles. As critics have noticed long since it was founded by figures including Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and codified by the likes of Christie, the whodunit is the most comfortingly structured of subgenres. The world is momentarily thrown into moral chaos by a sudden eruption of festering emotion that pays off in a crime, a killing more often than not, only for a detective with the mind of Aristotle and the purview of a priest-king to step in, identify the guilty party, and ensure the restoration of order follows. Christie’s particular genius at this style rested in her grasp of repression as its key-note, even in foreign and exotic climes rendering the parochial, everyday calm and politeness of the English social landscape on a mythic level, upon which plays of frustration and rage unfold: chafing scions bump off greedy patriarch, outraged wives slaughter faithless scum husbands, tortured good men lose control and choke terrible bitch-queens. Authentic transgressive impulses are identified as an essential aspect of the human condition, and the incapacity to keep them in check is then methodically unveiled and punished.
More recently, so-called Scandi-Noir, a peculiarly Scandinavian variant on the mode with roots in the overtly Socialist-themed Martin Beck novels of the 1960s, has found international popularity and prominence as it found a way to make the whodunit more socially and culturally interrogative whilst retaining that ever-satisfying functionality, a slant that’s inflected much of the style since. Branagh himself had recently played one Scandi-Noir hero, Kurt Wallander, on television. This mode’s popularity on the stage, where The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history, and on television, rather than in film, is telling. Alfred Hitchcock only made a couple of authentic whodunits in his long career as the Master of Suspense, sensing they were inimical to his understanding of film. Cinema, that great oceanic space of design and movement, can so easily encompass the drawing room dramas of the whodunit that it tends to dwarf their little sketches of static decorum and deception. Murder on the Orient Express as a property invites the cinematic eye, with the jazz-age elegance and exclusivity of the train setting, the sweep of the Dinaric Alps where the Express breaks down, the panorama of fascinating types aboard begging to be filled out by famous faces. But it also frustrates that eye as the narrative settles down and plays out like most whodunits, indeed as a perfect reduction of the form to essentials: a series of charged interviews between canny investigator and array of suspects. This comes complete with a punch-line that is at once the ne plus ultra of solutions – the everyonedunit – and a total dramatic bust. And yet how Branagh and Green try to negotiate this problem is a great part of the pleasure of their adaptation.
Lumet managed to make an unusual project work for him because Christie’s tale, however playfully, operated deep within the space of Lumet’s career-long fascination with criminals and law enforcers, how the two often exist in deeply uneasy relationship with each-other, how wretched the avatars of both prove in the crush of pitiless circumstance. Branagh has more an old Shakespearean’s fascination with the figure of the upright and exemplary individual who attempts in spite of their feet of clay to thrust their head into the stars. It’s a thematic fascination he shares in common with a predecessor as a theatre tyro turned movie fiend, Orson Welles, and also like Welles he’s constantly provoked and inspired by the way being totally cinematic also allows him to be, paradoxically, ever more grandiosely theatrical. Branagh’s Poirot comes equipped with a glorious pennant of a moustache, and is imbued with traits that looks awfully like obsessive compulsive disorder, as he’s foiled in his attempts to have breakfast by the inability of the hotel staff to cook two perfectly boiled and arrayed eggs, and constantly annoyed by things like crooked ties. This has a fashionable tilt to it – Sherlock Holmes for instance had often of late been portrayed as inflected with traits redolent of Asperger’s Syndrome – but it’s also part of a more comprehensive attempt by Branagh to both enlarge and engage Poirot as a more defined dramatic player, in a way that links up with an intriguing attempt to critique the whodunit as a whole without betraying Christie’s text.
Holmes was defined by his creator as “the highest court of appeal,” a fantasy of near-deistic insight into the hearts and ways of men, a blueprint for the concept of the great detective which Poirot readily fell into. Branagh takes this to a logical extreme in the film’s opening, in which Poirot is called upon to work out who, amongst a collective including a rabbi, a bishop, an imam, and a police inspector could have stolen a religious treasure from a church shared by the denominations. The detective swiftly reveals the culprit, defusing the eruptive religious tensions and exposing corrupt officialdom in one gesture, even contriving to catch the criminal by thrusting his signature cane into a slot in the Western Wall. It’s quite literally a vision of the detective as god, peacemaker and restorer, fulfilling that role as deistic intervener to a near-absurd degree. It’s an apotheosis Branagh takes as cue to bring Poirot down a few notches before re-enshrining him, shuffling about in the canon for hints of backstory and finding it in Poirot’s wearied glances at the photograph of long-ago love Katherine, representing a ghost of human attachment perhaps stirred by the twinned presence of the young, beautiful, sharp-as-a-tack Mary and the age-appropriate and dazzlingly lovely if seemingly daffy Caroline. Meanwhile the great detective frets increasingly about his restless, compulsive role as archaeologist of fetid human motives and misdeeds. The derailing of the engine leaves the train without power for a day and a dark night, a time in which people both freeze and sweat depending on Poirot’s proximity to them, stewing personal traumas and dependencies witnessed and stoked in numinous candlelight that thrusts all the characters back out of the semi-modern world and into a less forgiving, more sepulchral world.
And what misdeeds he soon starts to uncover, quickly discerning links between many of the passengers and the deceased Cassetti, to the point where everything starts to seem either the product of outrageous coincidence or very purposeful design. Branagh began introducing stage traditions of colourblind casting into film with fresh intransigence on Much Ado About Nothing, a habit that was still raising hackles as recently as Thor when he cast Idris Elba as a Norse god, and he continues this habit, although instead of simply casting a block actor in the role of Arbuthnot and leaving it uncommented upon, he uses it as springboard for digging into the social landscape of the train passengers in a manner that moves beyond Christie’s usual seismic examinations of class pretences to also prod questions about race and sex in manner that more proto-modern. There are intimations of romance between Mary and the good doctor given new hues of period transgression, particularly in the face of Hardman’s apparent subsuming of Nazi ideals in the foment of the age. Aynesworth prevails upon Poirot to take up the investigation by prodding him with the awareness that leaving it to the local police might see Arbuthnot and Martinez persecuted for their ethnicity. A telling joke that lands early in the film involves Arbuthnot catching himself in the act of reproducing the patronising ways of the white west with some Turkish sailors.
Where Branagh is more mischievous, and ultimately more himself, however, is his subtext based in a sense of theatre lurking behind the proceedings. His Murder on the Orient Express, for all its swooning camera mobility and passages of CGI epicism, is fixed securely in his sense of the tale as one rooted in our liking for actors plying their trade, a liking encoded in the story that demands a cast full of familiar faces to fill out the parts in order to render each and every suspect on a level. Although Lumet also had roots on the stage, such a self-aware lilt was beyond him, as it clashed too profoundly with his realist style. Just as Poirot sees a landscape of people pretending to be what they are not, that’s exactly what Branagh sees and knows the audience sees too. The act of stripping off the guise is played out most outright when Poirot instructs Hardman to drop his Germanic affectations and unveils a Yankee former policeman, who proves to have been in love with a maid of the Armstrongs who committed suicide after being tried for complicity in the kidnapping. Dafoe pulls off the moment in which the dedicated but tiring actor is ever-so-grateful in being freed from the part with a deft glimmer of wit, as the prop glasses and snappy accent are both dropped, and the cop idly mentions the source of the role in a way that recalls Branagh’s acting hero Laurence Olivier and his similar admissions of real-life models for characterisation. Dench and Jacobi have been regular members of Branagh’s band of brothers since Henry V, and indeed Branagh’s casting of Dench in that film almost certainly gave her movie career traction, and their presence lends proceedings the pleasant air of an old stock company reunited. To their number Branagh now adds the likes of Ridley, stretching her legs with impressive poise after her breakthrough in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Cruz, doing not much at all sadly, and Depp, who seems most appropriate in movies playing parts like this now, his formerly quirky male beauty hardening into a mask of ruined disdain.
As well as old Hollywood musicals, Branagh has worked through his admiration for Hitchcock before, engaging the Master’s obsessive tropes in a thoroughly personalised fashion with delirious plunge into fractured identities and sharp objects on Dead Again, and there are glimmers of it here, with The Lady Vanishes (1938) an inevitable touchstone: the very last shot inverts the opening of Hitchcock’s film. The climactic recreation of Ratchett’s actual killing rejects Lumet’s stately, ritualistic portrayal of the moment in favour of portraying a frenzy of rage from the carefully marshalled but finally unleashed avengers that has a more distinctly Hitchcockian feel for the ferocity lurking under the stoic mask of the average person. Branagh’s camerawork, at once ebullient but also perhaps the most controlled it’s been since his debut, turns the train into a series of rolling stages. The camera glides horizontally along the length of the carriage when Poirot first boards the train to analyse the conveyance, its compartments, and the passengers looming out from them. He repeats this shot at the very end with entirely changed meaning, the gazes of the people out at him charged with salutary complicity, Poirot’s status as adjudicator of fates reinforced but also his separation from the almost religiously transfigured passengers communicated with great visual succinctness and beauty. Elsewhere Branagh tries, much like the actors in the Globe Theatre might once have, with restless contrivance to release himself from the linear confines of the stage that he’s nailed himself to in the form of the train, be it in staging a brief pursuit down through the creaking, icy beams of the trestle under the immobilised train or picking out Poirot and Mary seated upon milk pails through the open doors of the luggage van, hovering in space halfway between heaven and hell in the midst of white-flanked, gold-crowned mountains.
There’s only so much Branagh can to do to give such a scuffed property a new lacquer of course, and if you know the story then there are few surprises to be had. But that’s precisely what I found so enjoyable here, the murder mystery staged as a dance, an old tune wielded with a fresh orchestration and choreography. And the critiquing aspect of the film remains as a dogging footfall to the main stride of the drama, as Branagh tweaks Christie’s denouement with just enough consequence to remake it more keenly as a moral crisis for Poirot, a reckoning with forms of justice and moral obligation, victim and criminal, beyond his usual understanding of the terms. It’s a way of approaching the story that gives a level of heft to the whodunit mode it usually pointedly rejects: an attempt to get at the visceral nature of crime, the impacts it has on a personal level, and demanding Poirot play his own part. “I see the world how it should be,” he admits early in the film, linking his obsessive characteristics with his moral viewpoint, but by the end of the film such easy linkages have been disrupted, finding nobility instead precisely in the boiling, neurotic desperation of the offended and broken-hearted, particularly Pfeiffer’s striking incarnation of the seething and righteous avenger under the thin coating of courteous disguise. This makes for a morsel of intelligence in a film that is otherwise a blissful time out from the world.