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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Dunkirk

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan


There are some movies that demand to be watched and some that demand to be experienced. Gravity is a good example. I saw Gravity in 3D at the cinema when it first came out in 2013 and I was blown away. The scale, the scope, the sensation, Gravity was a movie that transported me and once it was over I almost felt like I had spent the last couple of hours in space and had just returned. That was four years ago and I haven’t seen the movie since. Unless it’s being screened in a cinema in 3D, there’s just no point. I’ve never even considered going out to buy a DVD because I know that watching it on TV or on my laptop would not do the movie justice. It’s too big, too dynamic, too spectacular. There are some movies that simply must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. Dunkirk is one of those movies.

Dunkirk tells the story of the 1940 evacuation of over 300,000 British soldiers following their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in their invasion and conquest of France. The story is told through three different timelines, all focusing on three different sets of characters with three different goals. The first timeline takes place on land and its events transpire over the course of week. It follows a young private called Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately trying to escape from the beach by any and all means with the help of fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) while Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to orchestrate the whole evacuation from the Mole (the pier where the soldiers set up their base as they wait for the ships). The second takes place on the sea over the course of a day. It follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a mariner who sets sail on his boat with his son and his friend to help with the evacuations. On the way they rescue the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a shipwreck. The third timeline takes place in the air over the course of an hour and it follows Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they take down as many German fighters as they can for as long as the little fuel they have lasts.

I saw this movie in IMAX and the effect is astonishing. There are two things Nolan can do as a director at which he is almost peerless: scale and tension. He excels at depicting large, complex narratives with huge ideas driving them and he can draw his audience to the very edge of their seats and hold them there for what feels like an eternity. Dunkirk allows him to showcase these talents like never before and as I sat there watching it on a screen that was larger than life with sound that engulfed me from every direction, I honestly felt like I was there. From the very first frame we are dropped right into the action as Tommy flees a troop of enemy soldiers and stumbles onto the beach and, in every single moment that follows, the tension never falters for a second. Dunkirk does not feel so much like a war film as it does like a disaster film. There is an overwhelming sense of dread that commands each scene as each character restlessly await the arrival of a rescue party, without any knowledge of when it will arrive or if it will be enough, while dreading the impending arrival of an enemy whose movements are similarly indefinite. This is a race against time for the British army and Nolan does a fantastic job of stressing that motif, not just with his time-jumping structure but also with Hans Zimmer’s score which evokes a ticking clock.

Although the time-jumping structure does work incredibly well for the film, I do wish I’d known about it going in or that the movie had made it clearer that that was the approach they were going for. The only hand-holding the movie gives here is a trio of brief captions naming only the place and the timespan. That by itself would be sufficient if you already knew what they meant, but I hadn’t a clue and was quite disorientated for the 15-20 minutes it took me to work out what was happening. Once I’d figured it out though, I was absolutely mesmerised by the intricacies of how these three stories affected and interacted with each other. There’s one scene where one of the pilots must make an emergency landing in the sea and lets out a wave to his commander, one that he takes to mean all is well. It isn’t until we see that same landing from the perspective of those in the boat that we understand the wave was something else entirely. The structure can also be used for poetic effect, such as in a sequence near the end where the landing of a plane is shown to take as long as the boarding and launching of a naval fleet.

I’ve always liked Nolan more as a director than as a writer because I’ve found that his dialogue is often too contrived and expository and his characters too flat and artificial. With Dunkirk though it would seem that Nolan has gone out of his way to avoid these pitfalls and it works out wonderfully. The movie’s use of dialogue is so minimal that it could have almost been a silent movie (if not for the deafening sounds of planes, gunfire and explosions). The bond between Tommy and Gibson is one that goes almost entirely unspoken; theirs is a comradeship built on a recognition that they are stuck in the same hell and need to help each other and it is expressed through actions and gestures. The movie follows the example set by Malick’s The Thin Red Line by treating its characters more as units of a whole rather than as individuals. They’re all struggling together and the film is only interested in their personalities and individual plights insofar as they relate to the larger crisis. It is therefore a testament to the fine acting at work and the carefully chosen lines of dialogue they are given that we are able to feel so strongly for these characters and fear for their survival.

As opposed to most 20th century conflicts, the Second World War is one that the Brits and Americans often look back on with a selective, venerated memory. Dunkirk in particular proved to be an event of symbolic significance to Britain as it appealed to their perception of themselves as the steadfast underdog fighting against evil and adversity. Nolan has sought to depict a demythologised version of Dunkirk. He does not do this however by showing the graphic brutalities of war with blood and guts flying all over the place the way they were in Hacksaw Ridge. He chooses instead to portray the emotional turmoil of all those involved in the evacuations; the despair of the soldiers stranded in a foreboding warzone, the anxiety of not knowing whether or when rescue or ruin would come, the cold and utter shame of their defeat. It is also significant that, while the threat of the German army is ever present, we seldom see the German soldiers and, even then, only at a distance. The film isn’t interested in portraying them as villains because that’s not what the story is about. It’s about these soldiers and the arduous trial they all suffered and endured together. In the end when the movies allows for some sentimentality, it is completely earned.

Dunkirk is a cinematic triumph, one that somehow feels both epically huge and intimately small. The scale of the action taking place is immense and executed to technical perfection. The opening sequence where Tommy darts around alley corners and over garden fences as the enemy pursues him, the panic and chaos that ensues when dozens of men frantically try to escape from a sinking ship, the hectic dogfights between the Spitfire planes and the German aircrafts, these are all intense moments that grip the viewer and transport them right into the film. And yet the human element is never lost. Whether it’s the fear of a young man of being forsaken, the torment of a traumatised soldier, or the pressure felt by a pilot flying solo and on reserve fuel, Dunkirk allows us to fully understand and appreciate the trials and tribulations of those who were caught in the middle of this tight spot. Dunkirk is not a great watch, it is a great experience and (I really cannot stress this enough) it is one that must be seen in the cinema.

★★★★★

Cinderella

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Sophie McShera, Hayley Atwell, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Chris Weitz


Live-action Disney remakes seem to be on the rise now with the confirmation that such films as Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and Mulan are about to get their own. While I’m not against the idea of updating these classic films per se, I do think that that the execution has for the most part been underwhelming. This has mostly been due to either the filmmakers changing what doesn’t need to be changed or not understanding what made the original a classic in the first place. I don’t think Alice in Wonderland worked because it tried to introduce logic and reason to a world that is supposed to defy those conventions and I don’t think Maleficent worked because it tried to change the one part of the film that I didn’t think needed to be changed at all, its villain. Therefore I wasn’t really expecting much from the Cinderella remake.

Cinderella is, of course, the classic story of a young girl who is forced into servitude by her evil stepmother but who is then given the chance to go to the ball and meet the prince after being visited by her fairy godmother. The updated version offers an account of Ella’s exceedingly happy childhood which is cut short by her mother’s tragic death, during which she imparts onto Ella her greatest lesson: “have courage and always be kind”. Ella (Lily James) takes this lesson to heart as she never allows her sunny disposition to ever be diminished, not even by her new, unwelcoming stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). When her father passes away Ella is gradually revoked of her status as a daughter and instead becomes a servant to the household. As life gets harder for her Ella maintains her sunny disposition and never forgets the words that her mother spoke to her.

In Disney’s attempt to update this story there is a lot that works better than the original but also a lot that does not. Perhaps the biggest downgrade from the original film is Cinderella’s character who, rather than a determined, strong-willed girl trying to make the best of the life she has been given, is reduced to an irrationally cheerful dreamer who greets adversity with apathy rather than resolve. Her struggle becomes less believable and less compelling because, at the risk of sounding heartless, she doesn’t really suffer enough. The first ten minutes of the film, which I found to be a cringingly schmaltzy ordeal, show Ella and her parents living this excessively joyful life in which everything is sunshine and rainbows, a temperament that Ella maintains for the remainder of the film. Therefore her attitude towards any hardship that she encounters is to greet it with a smile and to hope for something better, an attitude that I felt diminished the oppressive nature of the life she had been subjected to. As opposed to the original character, who suffered a great deal at the hands of her wicked stepmother and in turn became all the more determined not to be dispirited or defeated, this Cinderella never seems to suffer all that much due to the excessive complacency she exhibits and her inability to feel any sort of pain or sorrow.

Another character who I felt was a step down from her original counterpart is the stepmother. Although the film does give her a few deliciously evil moments (and Cate Blanchett relishes every second of them) they are far too little. The film attempts to add a bit of depth and complexity to her character by providing her with a backstory and a motivation behind her actions, but the personality is a sheer downgrade. This stepmother is not nearly as threatening or as menacing as the original character nor as enjoyably evil. I found this villain to be far too silly and camp to be at all intimidating and not in an entertaining way.

With all that in mind, there were plenty of things about this film that I did like. One character who is a vast improvement over his original counterpart is the prince (Richard Madden) who in this film has an actual personality. This time around he and Cinderella actually meet beforehand and are able to form a bond with one another. Additionally his story-arc about succeeding his father (Derek Jacobi) as the king and being pressured by him and by the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) into marriage is actually quite a compelling one. Cinderella is also a gorgeous film to look at with its stunning sets, magnificent costumes and enchanting visual effects. Helena Bonham Carter provides a breath of fresh air in her quirky cameo as the Fairy Godmother.

What really bothered me about this film was Cinderella’s character and the way she affected the story. The incessant chirpiness that she maintains in light of the adversity and oppression she undergoes negates any sense of suffering and so I was less invested in her struggle. Her hardships do not seem at all tragic because she refuses to acknowledge them as such. Rather than try to make the most of her difficulties, she instead accepts them as they are and smiles as she bears them. Such an attitude is much too naïve and foolish for the smart, independent character that she is clearly supposed to be and betrays what the original film stood for. When Cinderella finally gets her reward at the end, it doesn’t really feel like she’s earned it. All of this is supposed to hammer in the film’s moral about having courage and being kind, a moral that gets repeated often but that is never actually taught (or at least isn’t taught very well). I did not hate this film, far from it, but I do think it is a failure as an upgrade to the original tale. What it attempts to add in reason and logic it loses in character and emotion.

★★★

[On a side note: The film opened with a showing of Frozen Fever which I liked a great deal. It was fun and enjoyable and the perfect way to get an audience into the Disney mood.]