Tuesday 22 May 2018

Murder On The Orient Express

Get Christie Love

Murder On The Orient Express
Malta/USA 2017 Directed by Kenneth Branagh
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B

So here we go again with another movie version continuing the exploits of famed crime writer Agatha Christie’s “world’s greatest detective”... no, not Batman... Hercule Poirot. I remember seeing the old Albert Finney version of Murder On The Orient Express back in the mid 1970s (possibly on a re-release) and I kinda half liked it at the time. I remember the solution to the mystery being somewhat unexpected (well, I would only have been 6 or 7 years old, maybe) and it interested me enough that I went on to see the Peter Ustinov Poirot movies at my local cinema when they were released.

Kenneth Branagh is here with this new reboot and, honestly, it’s not a terrible film although it’s not quite as 'refreshed' as I was expecting it to be. There are, however, some brave attempts to liven things up throughout the film. To be honest, one of the reasons I didn’t bother with this one at the cinema last year is because I couldn’t imagine it translating that well for the younger generation of movie goers the film needed to set in its sights to guarantee a bankable interest. Especially since, once you know the final solution to the whodunnit at the heart of the story, you probably don’t need to see another version of it.

Branagh puts himself front and centre here as Christie’s much loved (except by her) character and, when I say ‘front and centre’, I really do mean it. It’s a film which seems to be top loaded with medium/long shots except for quite a number of close ups on the directing/acting force of nature who is top lining the film. To be fair, though, he does have quite entrancing blue eyes and it doesn’t seem too out of place to expect that kind of camera attention given to Poirot.

Like the 1974 version, Murder On The Orient Express boasts a star studded cast with the likes of Johnny Depp as the murder victim (who seems to have fallen out of favour with audiences at the moment, for some reason but allow me to still make that Poirots Of The Caribbean pun), Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Derek Jacobi. However, as I said, a lot of the film is medium and long shots and though a few characters do get to shine for a few minutes at a time, the ensemble of these people sharing screen time is what’s more important here and Branagh doesn’t let himself be intimidated by the number of famous film stars who have climbed aboard for the journey.

There are a few attempts to liven up the story with a sense of dynamism... the opening ‘end of mission’ scene were Poirot’s perfectly placed walking stick ends up to be the undoing of the villain of the hour, the punch up after Poirot has been shot, the chase outside the train in the snow after it has been derailed by an avalanche... but these things don’t really make much difference to the general scheme of things, it has to be said.

What does make a huge difference to the tone and watchability of the film is the beautiful way in which Branagh, with his director’s head on, composes the shots with his cinematographer and there’s some truly stunning stuff here where he uses the 65mm format film to highlight some great designs (which is now making me regret not seeing this one at the cinema). He expertly uses various chunks of different texture such as the walls of a carriage against the glass windows, for instance, to section his actors off and highlight their place in the screen space. Indeed, he quite often replaces the naturally occurring verticals found in a variety of situations with various actors standing in front of them. So, for instance, the two vertical strips separating train carriage windows would have various characters standing or sitting in front of them with their positions on screen allowing the composition to still work without it jarring.

One of my favourite instances of these kinds of set ups in the film is where he has a shot of Branagh aligned against a vertical wall with the landscape to his right but with him firmly positioned in the vertical block. When the camera cuts to a closer shot of him from a different angle, he is still placed within the same vertical block (presumably he’s moved position slightly to accommodate this flow from one shot to the next) and I was impressed by this.

Another thing the director uses is a lot of those kind of Hitchcockian overhead shots where various characters can be seen from above and where you may, or may not, wish that some of the actors had a larger cleavage. Hitchcock used it maybe only once or twice in a film (if that) but Branagh really likes cutting to these kinds of views at various points in the story.

One other thing which was kind of interesting but possibly just a little distracting was the use of different glass planes next to each other to create a deliberately double image of this or that character. He does this fairly regularly (although I think Poirot himself is only seen as a single image) and I suspect it comes at points when the great detective realises that the particular person (or persons) are lying to him (although I’d have to check it again to see if I’m right). Thus, their duplicity is revealed on a less conscious level in the visual design of certain shots.

Not much more to say about this one, I think. A nice score by Branagh's regular collaborator Patrick Doyle in no way goes the same route as the famous Richard Rodney Bennet music for the 1974 version but it’s a nice one full of interesting orchestration and I might give this one a go as a stand alone listen if it’s available as a proper CD (rather than a stupid download).

Sure, there are some errors in the movie like the section of track where the train is derailed by an avalanche not actually having any mountains on it in real life but, on the whole, I quite enjoyed Branagh’s very self aware revitalisation of the character’s exploits. The end of this one kinda half contradicts Poirot’s original reason for being on the train in the first place, as he is met by someone who needs him to look into a murder on the Nile. So, yeah, the next movie along, if they get the green light to make one, will be Death On The Nile, I guess. I would quite like to see that if Branagh is still on board because I think what he’s done here is take a quite old school story and made it, not exactly relevant but certainly something which has a place in the pantheon of modern cinema. So maybe give Murder On The Orient Express a go if you’re not too precious about the way in which Christie’s famous character is handled.

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