There's a big problem with Kenneth Branagh's 2017 filming of the Hercule Poirot-based murder mystery
. and that's the 1974 Sidney Lumet classic featuring Albert Finney in the starring role. For that film was so memorable at least, the "who" of the "whodunnit" (no spoilers here) was so memorable that any remake is likely to be tarnished by that knowledge. If you go into this film blissfully unaware of the plot, you are a lucky man/woman. For this is a classic Agatha Christie yarn.
The irascible, borderline OCD, but undeniably great Belgian detective, Poirot, is dragged around the world by grateful police forces to help solve unsolvable crimes. After solving a case in Jerusalem, Poirot is called back to the UK with his mode of transport being the famous Orient Express. Trapped in the mountains by an avalanche, a murder is committed and with multiple suspects and a plethora of clues it is up to Poirot to solve the case.
Branagh enjoys himself enormously as Poirot, sporting the most distractingly magnificent facial hair since Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Gangs of New York". The moustache must have had its own trailer and make-up team!
Above all, the film is glorious to look at, featuring a rich and exotic colour palette that is reminiscent of the early colour films of the 40's. Cinematography was by Haris Zambarloukos ("Mamma Mia" and who also collaborated with Branagh on "Thor) with lots of innovative "ceiling down" shots and artful point-of-view takes that might be annoying to some but which I consider as deserving of Oscar/BAFTA nominations.
The pictures are accompanied by a lush score by Patrick Doyle (who also scored Branagh's "Thor"). Hats off also to the special effects crew, who made the alpine bridge scenes look decidedly more alpine than where they were actually filmed (on a specially made bridge in the Surrey Hills!).
All these technical elements combine to make the film's early stages look and feel truly epic.
And the cast
what a cast! Dame Judi Dench ("Victoria and Abdul"); Olivia Coleman ("The Lobster"); Johnny Depp ("Black Mass"); Daisy Ridley ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens"); Penelope Cruz ("Zoolander 2"); Josh Gad (Olaf!); Derek Jacobi ("I, Claudius"); Willem Dafoe ("The Great Wall") and Michelle Pfeiffer ("mother!"). A real case again of an "oh, it's you" film again at the cinema when's the last time we saw that?
It's also great to see young Lucy Boynton, so magnificent in last year's excellent "Sing Street", getting an A-list role as the twitchy and disturbed countess.
With all these ingredients in the pot, it should be great, right? Unfortunately, in my view, no, not quite. The film's opening momentum is really not maintained by the screenplay by Michael Green ("Blade Runner 2049"; "Logan"). At heart, it's a fairly static and "stagey" piece at best, set as it is on the rather claustrophobic train (just three carriages
on the Orient Express
really?). But the tale is made even more static by the train's derailment in the snow. Branagh and Green try to sex up the action where they can, but there are lengthy passages of fairly repetitive dialogue. One encounter in particular between Branagh and Depp seems to last interminably: you wonder if the problem was that the director wasn't always looking on to yell "Cut"!
All this leads to the "revelation" of the murderer as being a bit of an anticlimactic "thank heavens for that" rather than the gasping denouement it should have been. (Perhaps this would be different if you didn't know the twist).
However, these reservations aside, it's an enjoyable night out at the flicks, although a bit of a disappointment from the level of expectation I had for it. I can't be too grumpy about it, given it's a return to good old-fashioned yarn-spinning at the cinema, with great visuals and an epic cast. And that has to be good news.
For sure, Branagh does make for an amusing and engaging Poirot, even if his dialogue did need some 'tuning in' to. There was a suggestion at the end of the film that we might be seeing his return in "Death on the Nile" the most lush and decorous of Peter Ustinov's outings which I would certainly welcome. He will have to find another 10 A- list stars though to decorate the boat, which will be a challenge for casting!
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