Kenneth Branagh’s new film seems just a little off…
I really don’t want to review this film. It gives me no joy to criticise a director I enjoy, and seeing as I was actually an extra in the film, it feels a bit like biting the hand that fed. But after finally having seen Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, I have to admit that it just doesn’t measure up to any of the previous adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novel. I don’t think the film is bad, certainly there are still many things to enjoy about it, and it’s great to have a slightly more cerebral mainstream film, rather than another bland action snooze fest. However, it falls down in many areas that previous iterations are strong in, and I found myself not drawn into the story in any meaningful sort of way. It’s a very mediocre movie.
The story is mostly faithfully adapted from the novel, and the clues, surprises and outcome are for the most part the same, but the execution is sorely lacking. The characters aren’t given enough time to leave an impact. Each one, except a few of the main characters, gets a single introductory scene and one interview with Poirot and then for the rest of the film they only really appear in group and reaction shots. This would be fine if they were side characters, but in a mystery drama, each characters history and motivations are equally important, because we don’t know who the culprit is. This means that the big reveal at the end feels less earned because we haven’t spent long enough with the characters. It’s rare that I say a film is too short, but this could really have done with about twenty minutes extra footage to flesh out the characters. We barely have enough time to figure out that these people are acting suspicious before the final scene, where most of the information is handed to us without any clues given. The problem is Branagh is handing us the solution before we had a chance to look at the puzzle properly, and so the final scene can’t help but be an anti-climax.
Visually this film is brilliant and yet tonally inconsistent. The cinematography is very nice, and it’s clear they went to great effort to make the shots unique and interesting, considering the fact that nearly the whole film takes place on the train. Some shots work better, such as the overhead shots looking down at the characters when they discover the body. The problem is that the style of shots doesn’t match the style of the film. This a murder mystery period piece, complete with sweeping vistas and smart costumes, and yet the shots are all very modern, and this can feel jarring. It would be like filming a gangster movie with mostly shaky cam, it just doesn’t fit. On the other hand, the set and costume design are impeccable. The train carriage is opulent and classic, the suits are crisp and pressed and the dresses are pretty. When I was on set the train was still being finished, and yet it felt almost like stepping back in time, looking out of the window to see fake snow on the trees. I felt like some fancy foreign dignitary as I sat in one of the cabins, eating a bag of wotsits. After a while the train itself starts to feel like a character, and even though there are only two locations in the film, it doesn’t feel stale.
Now we come to the performances, and for the most part everyone did a good job. I say good, because the lack of focus on most of the characters doesn’t really give them opportunity to shine, there are no real stand out characters, apart from maybe Tom Bateman as Bouc. He takes a relatively boring minor character and turns him into youthful schoolboy type, who is thrust into a situation he struggles to control. In fact, he gets most of the funniest lines. Daisy Ridley, who plays Mary Debenham probably gets the most screen time outside of Poirot himself, and she does perfectly fine. She at least proves here that she has range outside of Star Wars.
But now we come to the man himself. Poirot, self-styled as the “world’s greatest detective”. This performance baffles me a little. It’s very far removed from the Poirot of the books, although I must admit I haven’t read that many. This Poirot has a pointless ex love interest and severe OCD, because apparently just being observant isn’t good enough to notice clues anymore. This Poirot is an action Poirot, chasing after culprits and hitting people with his stick. While Branagh has certainly captured the sizeable ego Poirot has, he fails to capture the quiet, restrained side of his personality. It’s hard to imagine the Poirot of this film sitting down quietly to solve a mystery, or have a chat with Captain Hastings. He is too bombastic and quippy. Branagh also is far too skinny. I realise that interpretation means making a character your own, and not being defined by the description in the books, but this is a classic case of Hollywood’s need to make characters better looking. He has a full head of hair, a rather rugged moustache and he seems to not even need his cane at all. It seems as though Branagh has done all he can to turn Poirot into a Belgian Sherlock Holmes, and not the classic one, the BBC version. I think that the problem is direction. Because Branagh is directing as well as acting, there is no-one to reign in his over the top tendencies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kenneth Branagh, both as an actor and a director. I just feel like he needs to choose which one to be. In this particular film, I think it would have been beneficial for Branagh to have produced the film and gotten in another director, to get a more three-dimensional performance out of him.
Overall, this film isn’t the worst, in fact it’s actually pretty good. Yes, the ending is an anti-climax and the characters need fleshing out. Poirot is a bit confused as a character and there is a tone issue. But the film still has a good visual style, enjoyable side characters and great art direction. I would say it is definitely the weakest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, but if it means more Murder Mystery films and less mindless action, I’ll take it.