I don't think I can ever forgive Kenneth Branagh for what he's done to Hercule Poirot. It starts, obviously, with the moustaches (given their prominence in the oeuvre, I shall use Agatha Christie's spelling, although unlike her I prefer, in M Poirot's case, the plural). The great Belgian detective's moustache is stiff, waxed and with upturned points: as Captain Hastings notes, in their debut adventure The Mysterious Affair at Styles, "Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible".
Poirot's moustache is as the man: small and precise. Branagh's is grey, luxuriant, unruly and, as Greg Gutfeld noted on Fox the other day, appears to have been borrowed from Geraldo, or a trio of passing raccoons. The point about the diminutive Belgian is that he is fastidious in everything, including his appearance. Hastings again: "The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound." This "quaint dandified little man" appears ridiculous in the drawing room of an English country house because his habits - from his pomade to his gleaming patent leather shoes - are not those of the environment in which he finds himself. But he is punctilious about them, as he is punctilious about his detecting. That's the point: The waxed moustaches and the "little grey cells" are all of a piece.
Times change, of course. The exotic Continental tisanes Poirot insisted on to soothe his labors have now been thoroughly anglicized as "herbal teas" whose ubiquity would astonish Captain Hastings. It is also the case that, for a quarter-century on television, David Suchet was as near to a perfect realization as we shall ever see: As the great man explained after hanging up his moustache four years ago, "I had only ever wanted to play Dame Agatha's true Poirot, the man she had created in 1920." I have a preference for the earlier episodes written by my old Bafta buddy Clive Exton (an equally assured adapter for "Jeeves & Wooster"), but the 2010 Suchet version of Murder on the Orient Express is an extremely fine piece of work. As both director and star, Branagh clearly had to do something more than Suchet karaoke, but his solution has been to de-Poirot the little Belgian and produce something almost as unutterably vulgar as Robert Downey Jr's witless Sherlock Holmes. You will note, for example, that in the picture at top right his tie is loosened: "Dame Agatha's true Poirot" would never do such a thing. In the opening sequence, he steps in a large pile of camel dung: The "true Poirot" would have gone back to his hotel to change shoes, socks and trousers. Like Downey's Holmes, the "little grey cells" are a mere peripheral attribute of a big-screen action hero. He uses his cane as Daredevil does his billy club, deploying it to prevent fleeing ne'er-do-wells and open locked doors. He walks along the roof of the train, for no particular reason except to raise the possibility that he's about to go full Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible.
And he has a lost love - "Chère Katherine," as he calls her, alone in his cabin. It's not that the waxed dandy is incapable of love, but that Christie's Poirot in such circumstances would not travel with her framed photograph in his valise, and then set it out on his night stand each night to moon over her before going to sleep. There are surely less dreary and hackneyed ways to distance oneself from Suchet.
Without wishing to give anything away to the three people on the planet who don't know the dénouement, Christie's plot is what we would now call high-concept: It's 1934, and Poirot is a last minute passenger aboard the Orient Express from Istanbul. Overnight in the Calais coach, an unpleasant man is most violently murdered, and, with the train stuck in a snow drift, the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits asks the eminent Belgian to solve the case discreetly and spare the company embarrassment. One of a dozen passengers committed the crime, but which? Since Sidney Lumet's original film version in 1974, it has become obligatory to do Orient Express with "all-star" casts: Lumet had John Gielgud and Anthony Perkins as, respectively, the victim's valet and secretary; Lauren Bacall as Mrs Hubbard; Wendy Hiller as the Pricess Dragomiroff; Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnott; Vanessa Redgrave as Miss Debenham; Ingrid Bergman in an Oscar-winning turn as a Swedish missionary to Africa; etc. The Suchet version can't match that star-wattage but is pretty stellar for a telly movie: Toby Jones as Mr Ratchett, Barbara Hershey as Mrs Hubbard, Eileen Atkins as the Princess Dragomiroff, Jessica Chastain as Miss Debenham.
Branagh offers as Mr Ratchett Johnny Depp doing his usual tedious and ostentatiously mannered shtick. Michelle Pfeiffer is Mrs Hubbard, Judi Dench the Princess, and Penélope Cruz the no longer Swedish but now Spanish missionary. Leslie Odom Jr (from Hamilton) is Arbuthnott: He's black, not white, and a doctor, not a colonel. Compared to Lumet's cast, it's a bit semi-lustrous, and it doesn't work because nobody has anything to do. Dame Judi says nary a word, and seems faintly resentful at having been roped into the thing. Branagh composes his shots like tableaux vivants - an elaborate overhead view of Poirot and others staring from the corridor into the dead man's room; the dozen suspects seated in a row behind a trestle table in the mouth of a cave, etc - and he lingers so lovingly on these elaborate compositions (not to mention the CGI Istanbul) that there's no room for unimportant stuff like story and characters. When you're turning a whodunnit into a movie, time-management is of the essence. Otherwise you end up doing, as Branagh does, explaining plot developments via clumsily inserted lines of exposition in between exquisitely framed shots of Balkan viaducts, etc.
Lumet managed the dramatis personae far more adroitly: There's only room for each star to get one moment to shine, but they're choice and they work. If it seems bizarre to us now that Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for a one-scene role, well, the one scene is great - essentially a five-minute speech, shot in close-up and a single take: just Poirot and the Swedish missionary, nervous and twitchy, clutching the detective's arm and explaining that she was born "backward" but has dedicated her life to teaching "brown babies" in Africa who are "more backward". One of the most iconic and glamorous stars is playing a frump, simpleminded, inarticulate nobody, and doing it very compellingly. Branagh was presumably going for a Latin version of the same trick with Penélope Cruz, who certainly looks wan and dowdy here, but without the compensation of a great scene - or, really, any scene at all.
For the difference between the two pictures, look no further than the brace of Arbuthnotts. Sean Connery admired Lumet as a director (they'd just done The Offence together, his first film post-007), and you can see why he liked his one moment in Orient Express enough to accept such a modest role. Arbuthnott is an Indian Army colonel whose faithless wife has returned to England: In a few deft lines, Connery sketches a real man, a full life, and an entire milieu - the Raj, divorce mores of the 1930s, distinctions between the Indian Army and the British Army, DSO and MC, all very particular. "Will you," he barks at Poirot, "give me your solemn oath ...as a foreigner?" he adds, as if unpersuaded that oaths and foreigners are not mutually exclusive. And then he reveals, stiffly, his love for the English teacher from Baghdad, Miss Debenham. And at the end of this revelation Vanessa Redgrave girlishly kisses Connery in front of their interrogators, and you believe that this pair had a life before the film began and will have one when it ends.
No such thing can be said of Leslie Odom Jr and Daisy Ridley in Branagh's version. Miss Ridley is, as before, an English teacher in Baghdad. But Arbuthnott is now a black doctor rather than a white colonel in order that our present can condescend to Christie's past and thereby assert its moral superiority. He exists in counterpoint to a racist Austrian professor, so that characters can present generalized philosophical observations on matters of race (and, in one leaden bit of business, a demonstration of oenological miscegenation in which red and white wines are combined to create an ad hoc rosé). So, unlike Colonel Arbuthnott, Doctor Arbuthnott is not flesh and blood, but an attitude. And, in consequence, Odom and Ridley have nothing to play, and thus have zero chemistry. I am so bloody bored by a solipsistic pop culture incapable of treating the past on its own terms.
Oh, to be sure, Lumet's Orient Express is of its time, and the color and lighting look a bit like a landlubbers' season finale for "The Love Boat", and you can't help noticing in the crowd scenes that an awful lot of these 1930s railway porters seem to have 1970s haircuts. But Lumet was a superb director of actors, and a great organizer of material. He presents the backstory - a shocking murder years earlier halfway around the world - as a prologue, deftly compressing and clarifying perhaps the most structurally problematic part of the source material. By contrast, Branagh creates his own flat and self-indulgent prologue, set at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and featuring a priest, a rabbi and an imam, and then scrambles to fit in the actual Agatha Christie stuff. He also fails to conjure perhaps the most important character of all: the train. In 1974, Lumet hired the world's greatest authority on locomotive sounds. The sound editor worked for six weeks on train noises only. At the start of the adventure, when the train pulls out of Istanbul, every bell, every whoosh of steam, every grind of wheels was completely authentic, right down to the barely audible click as the engine's headlight goes on. And then the film's composer Richard Rodney Bennett handed in his wonderful waltz theme for the scene, and Lumet knew that every single click and clank would be buried and inaudible. "We've heard a train leave the station," he told the sound guy. "But we've never heard a train leave the station in three-quarter time." The fellow walked out and Lumet never saw him again.
It was the right decision. The scene is about style and romance and nostalgia; although it has a train in it, it's not fundamentally about trains as public transit, but about trains as imaginative transportation. Perhaps the weirdest aspect of Branagh's remake is that he seems entirely uninterested in the choo-choo, both in its physical manifestation and as an idea.
Agatha Christie said of the Seventies adaptation: "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." True - although I preferred him to Peter Ustinov. But I have no doubt Dame Agatha would regard Branagh and his 'tache as a double-act of vandalism on her detective.
He is, alas, launching a franchise here. At the end of the film, a British officer rushes up to him, and explains that there's been "a death. On the Nile." And off Poirot goes to investigate. No doubt at the end of Death on the Nile, another British officer will inform him there's been "a mysterious affair. At Styles." And perhaps at the end of The Mysterious Affair at Styles someone will rush up and direct him to a small offshore island where there's a bit of a problem with "ten little ...er, whatever", and he can jet-ski in to rendezvous with Miss Marple as a lesbian ninja... Contemporary culture is imprisoned in its own cell, little and grey.
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