Death on the rail

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By Noel B. Vera

Movie Review
Murder on the Orient Express
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by Michael Green,
based on the novel
by Agatha Christie
114 minutes

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 finally all fall away to reveal a beautiful simplicity (“I’d never guess!” is the common reaction, though a slap of the forehead will suffice). Christie’s plots take to the theater stage (The Mousetrap, The 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 Kenneth 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 watches, burnt messages, a scarlet kimono, a gruesome murder, and more eccentrics than you can populate a theater stage 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 film’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 this way and that, capturing unlikely action sequences stuck haphazardly into the film to help keep the presumably ADHD audience awake.

Pity really. The visual climax of Lumet’s film comes early with the departure from the station 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 transport; a pause, a musical cue, the engine’s giant headlight flaring to life like a monstrous cyclops waking and we’re off. Such little gestures are clear signals 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, the camera follows the different characters as they board, tracking them through the windows as they cross a corridor rise up to the ceiling to take in the surrounding bustle. Close-up 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 send-off the train is already leaving the station, and we’re consoled with (largely CGI rendered) shots of the transport rolling through ’20s Stamboul neighborhoods. Plenty of huffing and puffing to end 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? — but Branagh has more fun with his performers (Dafoe’s racist professor getting considerable mileage out of his heavy Teutonic accent).

Albert Finney needed a gimmick to distinguish himself from a carload of scenestealers so he plays Poirot as a veteran English actor playing French (Belgian) sleuth — suspect he took his cue from Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau, but that’s all right; Sellers gets to mercilessly parody Finney and all other drawing-room detectives in a brief but brutal scene in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (directed by Blake Edwards — who, come to think of it, would have been a wonderful choice to direct the picture).

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 five-minute interview scene in a single take, winning her an Oscar for Supporting Actress, but I remember best the climactic murder and the champagne toast that ends the film, both of which had this ritualistic aspect, as if Poirot were witness to the practices of a coven.

Branagh isn’t as generous — he loves his whirling camera too much — but he does, on occasion, settle down enough for his performers to make an impression. He does play around with the notion of Poirot, mostly a caricature in the novels, here a soft-spoken eccentric obsessed with “balance” and cursed with a continually fast-forwarded mind (in a film full of badly done action sequences, the only one to show any wit is the first, where Poirot presciently plants his walking cane — an added detail in the film — firmly in a wall, to figure prominently later when all hell breaks loose).

Where Finney played his Belgian big, Branagh underplays slyly even brilliantly (Ratchett: “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 discuss that ’stache — a multi-limbed creature straight out of Hokusai with its tentacles rooted in Branagh’s upper lip, drawing sustenance for all I know (Branagh allows himself plenty of close-ups and those whiskers look firmly planted). It’s a spectacular bit of prosthetics or, perhaps, genuinely groomed and cultivated.

If there was ever an award for Best Facial Hair, Branagh’s should be the undisputed winner; otherwise they need to invent one, give it to him immediately. It’s the film’s single best special effect, and it isn’t even digital.