Directed by Kenneth Branagh
If Sorcerer has been called by some ‘the greatest remake ever made’, this new Murder on the Orient Express must be one of the feeblest. Despite the big names, Kenneth Branagh’s tricky camerawork, and a most complex ever Poirot moustache, it’s strangely ponderous and no match for Sidney Lumet’s glamorous hokum of 1974.
The earlier film gave us the pure entertainment of the original novel, but here the stars appearing have so little to do – Judi Dench stomps around with a boot face and little dialogue, Olivia Colman has no material to make either a real or parodic fist of her drab companion. Michelle Pfeiffer looks good but doesn’t beguile us with steely glamour the way Lauren Bacall did. Johnny Depp’s dour Ratchett is a stock, un-menacing, racketeer. And of course there’s no Ingrid Bergman! Even the famously mysterious scarlet kimono looks more like a housecoat from M & S. And the train itself isn’t a patch on that magnificent gleaming machine that swung into action to the wonderful Richard Rodney Bennett score in 1974. When I devoured just about the entire Christie oeuvre in my early teens, it was all about the retro glamour of the settings and the addictive and highly satisfying mathematical clicking together of the puzzles. Poirot was merely one vital part of the composition, a clever and comical egotist whose function was to be slightly ridiculous, yet prevail by providing the unlocking of the mystery. He was an inherently simple character with basic rules, who would never, like this one, step willingly into dung (merely to demonstrate his obsession with balance), or casually declare his friend’s companion a prostitute (to show how cleverly he can read people?).
This Poirot wants to be complex. From the curious, overlong opening sequence in Jerusalem – just when you’re keen to be getting on with the train business you’ve actually come to watch – which is just plain daft, with the Belgian resolving a dispute more likely to lead to serious rioting than the crowd’s respectful attention to the exercising of ze leetle grey cells, this is all about Poirot as a deep character. It’s clearly aimed at establishing his anal fixations and belief in absolute balance, the black or whiteness of each situation, a view he is to come to revise in the course of the film. But Poirot is not a realistic creation. This is Agatha Christie, not P D James, and we don’t really care that much about his development, what we want is colourful characters, suspicion, jeopardy, and a satisfactory unravelling. Even the discovery of the murder is somehow down-beat, with Branagh’s strange choice of an overhead shot zooming us up and away from the closed-in atmosphere of the train to a god-like perspective whence we can’t really make it all out. What should be an increasing claustrophobia, the ultimate in the closed room mystery, never feels febrile enough, leading as it does to the decision to make the final ‘truth-uncovering’ scene take place not in the train at all but in a tunnel where the ill-lit travellers are ranged Last-Supperishly along the back of a table. Why?
It’s true that one should not embark on a remake unless one has something new to say about the material. My fear is that Kenneth Branagh has spent too long in the Wallender world of scandi noir and is trying to bring more of a psychological darkness to one of the most ruthlessly puzzle-based writers of the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’. And paradoxically taken away much of the soul of the mystery.
Seen at the Tyneside Cinema, November 2017