MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
2017's premier mustache ride.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green (based on the novel by Agatha Christie)
With Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), and a number of other actors, great and small, all of them smaller than Sir Ken
Spoiler alert: mild as I can make it
It's worth pointing out that the first phase of Ken Branagh's long directorial career, which had been dedicated almost exclusively to adapting the fundamental stories of English culture for the screen, did not actually abruptly end when he started his hired-gun period in 2011, with Marvel and Disney's Thor. We know that the filmmaker at least claims to have thought of it as a continuation of his life's work: do a lot of Shakespeare, a little Shelley (and even a little Mozart), and it made some kind of sense that the man would eventually get around to the indigenous myths of the Danes, Norwegians, and Saxons, even if they had been rendered pre-bowlderized by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Branagh's pleasure. I, at least, was happy with the results, though, sadly, when the time came for a sequel, they kicked Branagh to the curb for... Alan Taylor? Really? They laid one guy off, then fired somebody else, for Alan Taylor? That can't be right.
Well, I guess there were no hard feelings: Disney's live-action Cinderella fits easily enough into Branagh's legacy, too—not to mention Branagh's style. Another mythological adaptation, this one came with a near-complete absence of actual story, such as would allow our Branagh to indulge himself completely (some would say indecently) in all the bizarre camera set-ups and imagined-past costume porn he could ever hope to put into a movie. (I think I liked that one too; but I've been wrong before.) Of course, I am ignoring the film in between, where Branagh's work as a curator and renovator of cultural classics in fact did abruptly stop—unless we're inducting Tom Clancy into the canon. This didn't work out, financially; and if I'm ignoring Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit now, as indeed I have since it came out, I'm only following the majority of the audience, whom it turns out were largely uninterested in seeing Branagh mine that particular franchise even the one time. But then, Shadow Recruit's misfire was probably even simpler than a journeyman looking for a full-time job: it could just as easily have been that Branagh, the actor, only wanted a paid excuse to have some fun with a silly foreign accent, and he merely took the first spy movie they were willing to give him.
Branagh's latest, Murder On the Orient Express, splits the difference between Branagh the Auteur and Branagh the Jobber, and unifies Branagh the Auteur with Branagh the Great Big Actin' Ham, too: it sees the director adapting another enduring English author, namely Agatha Christie; it sees Branagh taking on the central role of Christie's most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, whom we indeed find to be foreign as fuck (Belgian, specifically); and it sees Branagh once more tacking into the wind of a potential cinematic universe, because there might well be more Poirot novels (and Ms. Marple novels) than there are grains of sand on a mile stretch of beach.
I have read precisely none of them, and know even less about them than this confession already implies. Turns out this was to my advantage, at least for the purposes of the film Branagh made.
The funny thing is, in the process, Murder completely overwhelms its obvious commercial goals. I wind up wondering if it even remotely played that way in the novel, to which it appears faithful; if this film was a bid to start a series, it's a damned strange way to go about it, feeling more like the last Poirot story than the first (which it, of course, was neither—in fact, the actual last was written a full forty years later, almost certainly in Christie's anticipation of her own death). Branagh's Murder did well enough that a sequel, Death on the Nile, has been greenlit; but, presumably in spite of itself, this series-starter is as admirably self-contained as they ever come these days, seeming to foreclose any story about Poirot that could be interesting whatsoever beyond its basic attraction as a nuts-and-bolts mystery.
Not that this would not be enough. Murder is itself quite basically attractive as a nuts-and-bolts mystery, featuring an automatically-legendary detective in Branagh's portrayal, even if the character's fame didn't precede him. So: our tale begins as the novel did not, with a remarkably enjoyable prologue in Jerusalem that turns the set-up of a bad joke into a flamboyant showcase for Poirot's powers of deduction, letting us know, with a cackling glee that the film hopes you'll share (and I did), that those powers verge upon outright precognition. In the meantime, it clues us in to the pathology which has, over the years, quite ruined our detective for anything but solving crimes, through the unusually-elegant symbolism of Poirot stepping in a big pile of poo—as Poirot explains to a bystander, as he puts his other shoe in the crap, it's not a matter of hygiene, but of balance. Order is justice, symmetry is order, so if he must walk through shit to get there, then that is what Poirot shall do.
With his culprit caught in record time, Poirot heads off upon the Orient Express, bound ultimately for London to deal with some more boilerplate crime there; but, in the interval, he hopes to rest and relax during the long trip from Istanbul to the Channel. He doesn't make it past Yugoslavia by the time these hopes are dashed: the train is stopped by an avalanche, revealing that sometime during the previous night, an assailant unknown completed the murder of Poirot's next-compartment neighbor, a certain sleazy American named Ratchett, who confided to Poirot that he felt someone was out to get him (and whom Poirot, having sized him up immediately, suspected had it coming). Cursed with being the only detective around, and with a sense of duty that vastly outweighs his sense of inconvenience, Poirot takes the case, setting himself to figuring out just which of the twelve suspects on the train committed the crime.
Oh, I get it.
Twelve is a number with a lot of baggage in Western culture, and Anglo jurisprudence in particular, and Branagh demonstrates that he knows its meanings perhaps too well, though the twisted denouement that depends upon one of that number's values, when it comes, serves to obscure the other meaning, leaving it to implication. It's part and parcel to the way Branagh goes about everything in Murder, in fact, overplaying and underplaying it all at once, often at the same exact time. As Poirot, for example, Branagh overplays everything except his performance: between a pasted-on "mustache" that occupies half of Branagh's face (and may occupy several non-euclidean dimensions, as well) and the heap of gratuitous French dialogue Poirot gets to say (plus a French accent out of an actual cartoon), there is nothing about this character that you'd think might be subtle, let alone in this particular embodiment. But there Branagh is, speaking softly and with surprising nuance, at least until softness and nuance can do him no good. He creates a rather likeable presence for a man whose conception of honesty compels him to openly insult virtually everyone he meets and frown at the help when they can't get two eggs to be precisely the same size. And whose feet smell like feces.
This is well, for Branagh is still Branagh; all orbits around him, the secondary cast neither more nor less than a very fine collection of characters who only ever feel more than one-dimensional because "lying" is an additional axis, and who exist entirely for Branagh/Poirot's sake, and I suppose for the sake of the plot, though of course these are the same things. Yet this is the usual price of a murder mystery; it ought not be a criticism of any film that it abides by a point-of-view, and Murder is a fairly rigorous work of first-person perspective, which is a boon to its goals both as murder mystery and character piece.
Besides, Branagh made sure to put personality (and star wattage) where characterization might otherwise have gone in the secondary cast. Branagh's extensive ensemble of suspects (Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe are the standouts, and though they all range considerably across the spectrum of fame, everyone is excellent here, for even those used the least often, like Olivia Colman, are used well). Michael Green writes a funny, lively script for the lot of them, with no one left out, and with a few notes that sound discordant to modern ears because they should; Murder's "race-blind" casting is firmly in line with another of Branagh's career-spanning goals, but in deference to the reality of the 1930s (rather than the vaguely past-like proscenium from which Branagh usually builds his movies), it isn't "blind" this time at all. Hence, with a new, gratifyingly liberal bent for this Christie story, you're left to wonder, a little amused, what the author of, ahem, And Then There Were None might make of it. Altogether, the efforts of the director, the screenwriter, and especially the cast grants an appearance of a soul to these mechanical beings. This is not only absolutely enough, it is in some sense preferable, for if Branagh's overbearing symbolism is to be taken seriously, and I think it should be, we are to be trapped aboard this derailed train with Poirot alone, and with the fog he's about to walk through on his way to his calvary.
The scourging of the 'stache is the most poignant scene of all.
Coming as a package with Branagh these days is cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who, with Branagh's enthusiastic blessing, deigned to shoot this chamber drama on 65mm, apparently because large-format film and talky, single-location thrillers are a thing now, though I suppose it takes three to make a trend. Anyway, the film is handsome, and sometimes quite perfect—Zambarloukos, also of Locke, is getting to be one of the preeminent cinematographers for shooting actors through or against panes of glass, and Branagh exploits the hell out of this particular skillset, in either comparatively quiet ways (a widescreen closeup of Poirot in a moment of depression, his reflection occupying what would be the negative space) or in very, very loud ones (the panoply of shots through frosted glass that bifurcate the images of the suspects, underlining their duplicity before they've even opened their mouths to confess their secrets).
Murder is the Branagh film wherein Branagh's typically-unhinged dynamism behind the camera, which I have always enjoyed even when it was too much, is constrained almost totally within actual storytelling devices: from the impossible God's-eye view the camera takes as Poirot surveys a crime scene inside a cramped train (and the equation is surely no accident) to that stitched-together long take right at the beginning, that playfully winks at you every time Poirot is hidden from view for a split-second as he walks through a train, and meets a number of our suspects as he does. So let us lament only the regrettably unpersuasive train CGI—there being a strong possibility that The Polar Express features a more robustly-rendered locomotive. (On the plus side, production designer Jim Clay's train interiors remain pretty swell.) But scratch that whole thing, because let us also lament that Branagh, willing himself into a certain steadiness to present his stately tale, sometimes does go too far, and very occasionally allows Poirot's interviews to descend into the most primitive kind of shot/reverse-shot trash. Oddly, these scenes call attention to themselves more than anything else in the movie, including the mustache, simply by being ugly, lazy, and dull; that's the rarity here.
Sometimes I'm fortunate to be ill-read, and ignorant generally; watching Murder, which genuinely surprised me, was absolutely one of those times. In retrospect, it may seem a little like the master detective ought to have figured it out sooner, but Poirot may be heartened by Raymond Chandler's august criticism of the Christie novel: of the story's ultimate solution, Chandler wrote that it was "guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop"—for "only a halfwit could guess it." It makes me feel better, anyway. But as Chandler's criticism is both well-observed and obviously missing the point, one of Murder's supreme pleasures (I presume replicated in Lumet's version, and please do not make me try to answer that director vs. director question here) is the sheer implausible wildness of its revelations. Above all, I never expected this murder mystery to become, in due course, a moral fable. But then it does. There are perhaps more emotionally potent ends you can imagine—keeping it only within the family of famous fictional detectives, one can see Poirot becoming a Javert, or, maybe bleaker still, a Batman or a Rorschach—but those endings would, I presume, not belong to a Poirot. Especially not this one.
What Murder on the Orient Express leaves you with, then, is not only a well-crafted preposterous thriller. While it is chiefly that, its most compelling aspect is its dissection of its own detective. Okay: I don't want to make it sound too good. It remains in the realm of archetypes and symbol. It is not psychologically incisive in any real sense, because its subject is a caricature. Frankly, it has holes, and it's silly as all hell. But, then again, "archetypes and symbol," and even "silliness," are where actual power often lies in movies, and Branagh has always been terribly good at all three. He's even better at them here than usual, boldly and probably even accidentally cutting the legs off of his own ongoing series at the very instant it starts—by telling what I have to suspect is just about the only Poirot story that could actually matter to Poirot.