FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Branagh, Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh as Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Few could have colonised a role as comprehensively as David Suchet playing Hercule Poirot, that pedantic, fastidious figure of sleuthing fame created by Agatha Christie.  Manner, affectation, and delivery all seemed immaculate, read, and even delightful.  Invariably, this sort of thespian appropriation and adaptation creates its hordes of admirers, zealots who refuse to accept rivals, pretenders, or usurpers.

Kenneth Branagh, to that end, was always on a trip to nowhere taking on the task of re-creating Poirot, even if dramatic roles can never be patented.  Things, in other words, were always bound to go wrong, in some sense.  If not how Branagh portrayed it, then the why of it.

Murder on the Orient Express seems, at first glance, to be a considerably overly egged pudding.  Veteran actors come at you from all sides (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench), and at times, the film resembles a major actor’s grand reunion.  The same could also be said of the 1974 production by Sidney Lumet: Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, and Sean Connery.

Branagh was certainly keen to have some impact on his cast, wanting them all “to have the experience of being blindfolded and sticking a knife into the animal organs.  I wanted to have everybody understand what it might be like to have sharp steel going through flesh.”

If only that lesson had been learned a bit more avidly, not least of all than by Branagh himself, who wished to avoid letting his actors think of the material as a case of “theatrical pantomime”.  The analytical cool steeliness of the Belgian detective shades into self-reflection and moistened emotion.  Close-up shots feature tear ducts welling up.

He reflects; he ponders; he anguishes over the murder in the Calais coach.  Some of this is openly derived from Branagh’s own Shakespearean take on “the poison of deep grief”, something which he reads into Christie’s work with much unjustified enthusiasm.

It is not quite true to claim, as Anthony Lane in The New Yorker does, that there is nothing to desecrate here.  However much one is impressed or, for that matter, unimpressed by Christie’s work, effort is still called for.

Some thought might have, by way of example, been given to get the scenery, suspended as an infuriatingly sterile animation, accurate.  The sense of the inauthentic permeates the whole show. The book commences in Aleppo, though Branagh’s Poirot finds himself in Jerusalem, swiftly moving to Istanbul.  Viewers familiar with the landscapes will find the blemishes of geography a bit hard to take at various stages of the journey.

Perhaps this is Branagh’s point. He is showing fidelity of sorts – after all, Christie was accused of improbable plot lines and a sequence of miraculous discoveries by her sleuths.  This was the line of writing that irked Raymond Chandler, whose The Simple Art of Murder remains both a treat and a weapon against that generation of the fabulous and the confounders.

Chandler reserves a bolt for a certain M. Poirot who “decides that nobody on a certain through sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater.”

The film also throws in odd moments of cinematography.  On the big screen, the viewer becomes squeamish at certain angles of filming.  As part of this optical license, the victim, from above, is only shown after an initial conference, stab wounds revealed like evidence of a ceremonial sacrifice.

The freedom taken in some instances suggests, ironically enough, a limitation.  Branagh wishes to remain politic and contemporary, a point that leads to such improbable insertions as black soldiers in the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia army.  How those in the Balkans will chuckle.

There seems to be much in the way of miscasting and a miscarriage of thespian effort.  Dench is barely breathing as Princess Dragomiroff, and Johnny Depp is far from sensible as the doomed Ratchett, mumbling his words of concern like a narcotised patient. (His character’s derogatory reference to canines might well have been inspired by personal experiences suffered in his efforts to smuggle two of his own into Australia.)

No one, then, can fault Branagh on attempting such a project.  Murder mysteries sell.  Christie affords rich material to adapt, an eternal mine to sort through and reimagine. But this is one occasion where a few more stumbles might have been avoided.

To get it across the line, the film will no doubt be relying on the lavish period piece costumes and the glamour factor rather than the spectacular feats of M. Poirot. It certainly worked with The Guardian, which regarded the film as much like “a Belgian iced bun: a nostalgic pleasure, goes down easy, irresistible on a Sunday afternoon.”

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

September 26, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Time to Wake Up: the Neoliberal Order is Dying 
David J. Detmer
History Distorted: Sam Wineberg’s Critique of Howard Zinn
Robert Hunziker
An Unforeseen Climate Beast Awakens!
Barbara Nimri Aziz
How Many More Women Are There?
Jörg Wiegratz
The Age of Fraud: the Link Between Capitalism and Profiteering by Deception
John Kendall Hawkins
Now There’s a Wall Between Us, Something There’s Been Lost…
William Kaufman
Brett Kavanaugh’s Wayward Penis: A New Twist
Michael Welton
A Wake-Up Call to the Canadian Left
Patrick Irelan
Brett Goes to School 
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
All Wars Are Illegal, Let’s Act!
Dean Baker
Robots, China and the Failure of Economics Reporters
Matthew Johnson
Cancel Kavanaugh
Rohullah Naderi – Rustam Ali Seerat
The Option of Self-Defense for Hazaras
September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail