Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

The Laboriousness of Hercule
"Not No Much a WhoDunnit as a WhyDoIt?"

Agatha Christie was loathe (and that is the precise word) to have her books adapted by Hollywood. She wasn't crazy about the "Ten Little Indian" versions, and absolutely despised the Margaret Rutherford-starring Miss Marple films (especially when Tony Randall cameoed as Hercule Poirot in one of them). She reconsidered towards the end of her life after a personal appeal by Lord Mounbatten (father-in-law of one of the producers) that resulted in Sidney Lumet's 1974 all-star version of "Murder on the Orient Express", starting a series of fims and a flood of adaptations for British television, featuring Marple and Poirot. CBS broadcast a modern-dress version starring Alfred Molina (which was clueless and terrible and would have produced a train-like shriek from Miss Christie from beyond the grave).

When the "Poirot" series (with the dedicated David Suchet) did its adaptation a few years ago (with Barbara Hershey, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, and Jessica Chastain among the suspects), it was head-and-shoulders more satisfying than the multi-million dollar film version. But, on the heels of that was announced a new film version to be directed by (and starring) Kenneth Branagh and one could only wonder what the possible reason might be.
The Detective
Having sat through the new version of Murder on the Orient Express, I can only guess that it was to provide work to a lot of film technicians and actors. It's product, but nothing Earth-shaking, and for that, it isn't even a great adaptation. The script is quite good—thank you, Michael Green, Hollywood's busiest script-writer/doctor—but the presentation leaves much to be desired. Maybe the film-makers were merely trying to attract a young audience to a version where the actors weren't aged or deceased (in which case, we'll always have Dame Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), but I think the film will mostly appeal to the blue-haired matinee-goers, who have a history with Christie so that, even if the film does become a tent-pole production (they hint at a version of Death on the Nile next), it will probably suffer the same fate as the 70's movie series, which faded after a couple of lackluster productions.

It also might have been an attempt to resuscitate Poirot as they did with Robert Downey jr's steampunk Sherlock Holmes (directed by Guy Ritchie)—there are certain indications of this as this version of Poirot sizes up people with a glance ("You're a prostitute..." "Yes, I am!") and has a habit of anticipating events five steps ahead of his suspects. That's new, and certainly outside of Christie's envisioning. But, aside from purloining some aspects from other Christie stories, there's nothing very new—or original—except for getting the character a bit wrong.* Poirot is described as a mountebank (read "snake-oil salesman") by Christie, so although he might be fastidious to a fault, he is no tall, imposing presence. The mind is what is supposed to impress about Poirot, not his appearance. If anything, he shouldn't be too impressive at all.

And we'll get to "the mustache" in a few minutes.
The Victim

Poirot is in Jerusalem investigating a theft involving a priest, a rabbi, and an imam (like "the joke" he comments). Exposing his dramatic side by doing his presentation of evidence in front of a crowd at The Wailing Wall—seems a bit extreme—Poirot solves the crime. Given the ecumenical divisions of the suspects that's at least all-inclusive, but it's a fairly risky procedure to do this so publicly. Why would he do this in front of strangers who have no clue (literally) of the particulars of the case.

The show over and the exposed non-denominational thief caught, Poirot decides to take a last-minute trip back to London and uses his friendship with Bouc (Tom Bateman), roguish son of the director the Orient Express to gain passage. He takes the place of a "no-show" and in transit, strikes up a casual friendship with governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and a doctor named Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, jr.) who seem to be more than familiar with each other. It is enough to cause more than a tickle in his little gray cells, as the two are making pains to not seem familiar.

Once he gets to the Calais Coach, he makes note of the other passengers cutting across all sorts of ages and strata of society, princesses and practical men—the usual disparate suspects. He is approached by a dealer of art named Rathcett (Johnny Depp, channeling Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) who asks for Poirot's protection—he fears for his life, but Poirot, despite sharing a dessert with the gangsterish fellow, refuses for the most basic of reasons—"I do not like your face." In the middle of the night, he will be murdered, stabbed repeatedly and the train will be stopped by an avalanche, keeping the occupants conveniently trapped aboard. It will be up to Poirot to discover who aboard could have committed the crime before the train can be freed and continue on its way to waiting authorities.

There are clues aplenty and the reasonable assumption that the murderer is still on-board, as a couple of random attacks, none fatal, make it suspicious that one of the others could be next. But, who could be the perpetrator of such a vicious murder? As Poirot interviews everybody on the train, he finds threads and suspicions, but most of them seem to be distractions rather than real clues.

There are attempts to make the film less claustrophobic, but they seem a trifle desperate to create some action in a scenario that is mostly talking and thinking. And Branagh (the director) tries to inject some mystery and resonance by making use of the di-optic qualities of the glass partitions in the carriage—a bit too much, actually. Like most of the film it is mere obfuscation to a denouement that answers the questions, but creates an ethical dilemma that is the real center of the story. That dilemma is resolved by a tricky maneuver by Poirot (not in the book, which ends abruptly with the solution of the murder without any sort of hand-wringing about justice) that is a tad simplistic and more than a bit impractical in matters of weight. Versions had resolved it "similarly," but Poirot's deliberate entrapment creates a scene that makes him seem more decisive and conniving, and does so without a lot of talk. Personally, when the subject is justice and right versus wrong, I much prefer talk.

At least, Branagh's is not as perversely celebratory as the 1974 Sidney Lumet version—a murder is committed, after all—but it is not as brave and resolutely moral as the Suchet television version, which has the detective shaken and fighting tears by his own actions (or lack of them) in the service of what might be justice. The detective is trapped by his own catholic history (far beyond the aspirations of Christie) and feels complicit in the whole affair. Now, that is something of some import. "The Murder on the Orient Express" has one more victim; it kills something in Poirot.

Now...the mustache. A review can't seem to go by without a mention of the very large and ferret-like mustache that Branagh's Poirot sports throughout the movie. Such is the sort of thing that dominates internet criticism or what passes for it. The cliche is the dainty little handlebar curl of Albert Finney and David Suchet. Branagh's winding "extreme" Imperial is a distraction—maybe that's why it's there, dramatically. But, there is one other reason it might be a part of this film. Dame Agatha was alive at the time of the 1974 Lumet version and her one criticism of it was thus: "It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn't in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn't he?"

I guess that is the answer to the ultimate mystery—why do it?  I just wish the answer was something more than "why shouldn't they?"

* ...for instance, in a couple of scenes, Branagh is seen clutching a locket with a portrait of his lost love, Catherine. Who? No such person existed in all of Christie. The closest Poirot came to "the woman" (how Sherlock Holmes referred to the woman he most admired, Irene Adler) was the Countess Vera Rossakoff. Setting something up for another movie. Well, to do that the first one has to be good. 

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