Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green


Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.

★★

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Jane Goldman


In a perfect world any film that combines the concepts of X-Men and Groundhog Day with Tim Burton’s style ought to be a guaranteed recipe for success. Sadly our world is far from perfect and so is this film. Burton, a singular visual director who practically created his own genre as he produced hit after hit in the 80s and 90s, has maintained an uneven career for the better part of two decades now. For every Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, he has made a Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland. Nowadays the tropes that once made him an innovator and a visionary, from the gothic sets and costumes to the creepy and inventive visuals to the weird and eccentric characters, tend to lean more towards cliché and self-parody. Style over substance isn’t always a bad thing when the style is in itself something to be admired, but it is deadly once that style becomes tiring or is used half-heartedly.

Jake Portman first heard about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from his grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) in his bedtime stories. The house, so Abe says, is where he grew up along with a collection of other children who possess extraordinary abilities. After his grandfather dies a gruesome death Jake, on the advice of his therapist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney) sets off for the Welsh island with his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) to visit the house. At first all he finds is the estate’s remains after it was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1943. Later he is found by some of the Peculiar Children who then lead him into a cave that transports them back in time to that very year. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), it turns out, is able to keep her house and the children hidden from outsiders by storing them in a time loop. With her are the Peculiar Children, including Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a girl with the ability to fly, and Enoch O’Connor (Finlay MacMillan), a necromancer. Miss Peregrine’s Home however is threatened by strange creatures called Hollows, led by the sinister shapeshifter Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and Jake is the only one who can help them.

The story hits the usual notes you might expect from a Burton movie. It focuses on a social outcast who finds meaning and belonging in a weird and wonderful world that differs from our own. Burton however does not bring the conviction or the commitment to this story that is so readily apparent in his earlier work. His style is evident in the film’s subdued colour palette and eerie designs, but the world he creates feels so spiritless and indifferent. There is no enthusiasm in the pursuit and discovery of the strange, no sensation to the ethereal nature of this universe, no wonder in the meeting of the innocent with the macabre. The man who used to speak volumes in every frame and who could always find charm and beauty in the strange and sinister now resorts to gratuitous exposition and depicts the peculiar for little more than peculiarity’s sake. Apart from the few brief glimpses we are allowed into Burton’s twisted and creative soul, the film is without life and originality.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the protagonist Jake, an introverted teenager with the personality of a cardboard box. In spite of Butterfield’s best efforts (putting aside his attempt at an American accent), Jake is an utterly forgettable and wooden character who cannot conjure a single emotion for love, wonder or pain. The shoe-horned romance he shares with Emma is so contrived and stale that I almost thought I was watching a gender-swapped rendition of Twilight. Accompanying him is a collection of superficially odd characters whose personalities are defined by their abilities and little else. Of all the actors whose talents went to dismal waste in this film (a list that includes Terence Stamp, Allison Janney, Judi Dench and Kim Dickens), only two brought any life to their performances. One is Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, an actress whose ability to chew scenery rivals that of Helena Bonham Carter. The other is Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who lives for the absurd and excessive.

The movie’s one other redeeming feature is its climax which is as enjoyably over the top as it is ludicrously nonsensical. As I approached the third act I found that I wasn’t in the least bit invested in the showdown that was to take place between the bland, characterless goodies and the painfully incompetent baddies. That attitude remains unchanged, but at least I got to watch a battle between a horde of invisible eye-gouging monsters and a legion of stop-motion Jason and the Argonauts skeletons in the middle of a seaside carnival. It comes nowhere close to saving the film, but I’ll take what I can get. All things considered, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not the worst work Burton has produced recently but it is a testament to how far he has fallen since the days of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. While I can hardly say that the climatic battle is reason enough to watch this film, it is at the very least an assurance that some of the magic is still there. I hope to see more of it in his next project.

★★