Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is a top shelf whodunnit played out with crisp pace and crackles, thanks to a cache of intentionally opaque performances from a prestige cast including Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad. Branagh has orchestrated the perfect actor/director vehicle for himself that finds the perfect tone between prestige and pulp cinema.
Branagh adorns the thumping, manicured walrus moustache of Hercules Poirot, Christie’s contribution to the canon of world’s finest detectives that is embroiled in the aforementioned “Murder.” Detective Poirot (Branagh), at the insistence of an old friend is sampling the opulence of the cross-continental steam train when an unexpected avalanche results in a derailment. The delay reveals that a first class passenger, the dubious businessman Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), has been murdered. The inclement weather isolates a carriage of first class suspects and as Branagh’s delightfully over the top Poirot says with his pronounced Belgian accent, “if this was a murder, then there is a murderer.”
The 1st class car in question is a decadent panopticon that should make it easier for Poirot to scrutinise, but we’re repeatedly seeing each potential murderer in the reflections and refractions in this glass echo chamber. None of the characters expressions convey easily distinguishable emotions. There’s even a moment early in the film where Poirot takes an excursion to the top of the car to clear his head with the mountain air and take an objective position above passengers. Like the bridge nursing the derailed train, there’s a bramble of motives that he’s required to make sense of to get to the truth.
Branagh’s most famous works are adapting novels/literature for the screen. Finding his command as a director adapting Shakespeare with “Henry V” and “Hamlet” — as strange as it seems — led him into the director’s chair for “Thor,” and across the hall to “Cinderella,” for Marvel and Disney respectively. “Murder” creates a collision for Branagh, a terrific actor in his own right to be able to adopt the role of chief inquisitor of the suspects/players in the film. Branagh’s Poirot is a perfect vehicle as both a performer and as a director. It blurs the line (literally in some cases) between performing as the character and guiding and directing the performances of his troupe. Poirot’s character is larger than life, treading the boards of the crime scene like a ringmaster. In the opening of the film, Poirot stands in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to proclaim a conclusion of an investigation and struts casually and ensnares the perpetrator. Once he’s embroiled in the titular murder, that performative element of the character is emphasised in the way that he attempts to manipulate those that have come under his scrutiny.
Poirot (Branagh) interrogating Hector MacQueen, played with a slimy quality by the unstoppably likeable Josh Gad, you watch the transition perfectly. MacQueen is being interrogated in his cell like compartment. Branagh’s camera does a great seesawing, cutting between an observational shot from Poirot’s perspective as MacQueen is poring through his mess of papers and belongings and then contrasting the shot with MacQueen’s perspective. In this opposing shot you begin to feel like this is intended orchestrated chaos to obscure the truth. When the interrogation begins Poirot occupies the same scene, the shots bouncing between one another before this sweeping motion positions Poirot in the audiences headspace. As he’s firing questions and MacQueen (Gad) is evasive, it was reminiscent of the spellbinding behind the scenes moment in the seminal movie making documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.” Director Francis Ford Coppola is a hair out of frame instructing Martin Sheen’s performance as Willard. Sheen, who is drunk during the scene is breaking down on the lens, Coppola is whispering instructions inspired by tormented visions and dreams. The power of the scene, when you watch it unfold in “Apocalypse Now,” is exponential if you’ve seen the documentary.
Branagh is not spiralling into a gyre at the helm, a la Coppola, but Poirot is unravelling. The further he gets in the investigation the more conflicted he becomes about the possibility of the passengers involvement. Screenwriter Michael Green must create the schedule for the performers to adhere to by propelling the story/investigation forward and allowing them keep their cards close to their chest. It’s no secret to the filmmakers that in a murder puzzle such as this you’re taking notes in your mind, narrowing the suspects and looking for the clues in each performance. The ensemble of great actors does well to maintain this intended imbalance. Judi Dench’s Princess Dragomiroff clearly postures herself above the surrounding passengers, but has too much clarity in her eyes to ever feel oblivious to what’s going on. Penélope Cruz’s religious zealot Pilar Estravados seems to temper her piety in moments of pressure. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Caroline Hubbard is drawing attention to herself by calling out her suspicions of some of the fellow passengers behaviours, but she doesn’t for one moment feel vulnerable. Daisy Ridley’s teacher Miss Mary Debenham begins to observe and confront Poirot with his techniques, noting that he’s trying to fashion spaces and locations in their limited space, from their stranded mountainside locale designed to extract information best for each person.
At the conclusion of Poirot’s investigation a policeman calls the great detective away; his services are required as there’s been a “Death on the Nile.” The nod to another of the most well-known tales in Agatha Christie’s 42 Poirot stories published between 1920 and 1975. In a universe dominated by serialised cinematic universes, I welcome the prospect of more Branagh/Poirot joints.
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Michael Green (based upon the novel by Agatha Christie)
Kenneth Branagh ... Hercule Poirot
Daisy Ridley ... Miss Mary Debenham
Tom Bateman ... Bouc
Gerard Horan ... Aynesworth
Penélope Cruz ... Pilar Estravados
Richard Clifford ... Maître d'
Josh Gad ...Hector MacQueen
Johnny Depp ...Edward Ratchett
Derek Jacobi ...Edward Henry Masterman
Sergei Polunin ... Count Rudolph Andrenyi
Lucy Boynton ... Countess Elena Andrenyi
Marwan Kenzari ...Pierre Michel
Michelle Pfeiffer ... Caroline Hubbard
Judi Dench ... Princess Dragomiroff
Olivia Colman ... Hildegarde Schmidt
Willem Dafoe ... Gerhard Hardman
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