Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Full Scheme Ahead; Film of the Week Kenneth Branagh's Adaptation of Agatha Christie's Most Famous Mystery Looks Gorgeous and Boasts an A-List Cast but the Film Is Dead on Arrival. Whodunnit?

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Full Scheme Ahead; Film of the Week Kenneth Branagh's Adaptation of Agatha Christie's Most Famous Mystery Looks Gorgeous and Boasts an A-List Cast but the Film Is Dead on Arrival. Whodunnit?

Article excerpt

Byline: Matthew Norman

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS Cert 12A, 114 mins AT THE risk of letting daylight in on magic, one of the more obscure perks of this job is the chance to enjoy a film's production notes when a studio is generous enough to provide them. So it is, with thanks to 20th Century Fox, that I may share some background material about Murder on the Orient Express.

The notes tell me that this Agatha Christie story is "the most timeless of whodunnits", for instance, and in one sense this is true. Unfortunately, that one sense is nonsense. In every other sense it is as timeful a whodunnit as could be.

It is locked in 1934, when the Hercule Poirot novel to which (with some minor diversions) it is loyal was published, and the action of this remake of the 1974 Albert Finney version takes place.

Its sensibilities are as shackled to its period as the costumes. That said, there is something timeless about the elegance of the travel. To this day you can barely walk five yards along a Southern train to Haywards Heath (if you can find one) without finding a white tuxedoed steward flambeing veal sweetbreads in cognac.

In the notes, Kenneth Branagh, who directs as well as starring as Poirot, describes Christie as "expert at bringing depth to the observation of characters". Now I love her to bits. At 14 I read all 87 of her novels, and was so obsessed with Poirot that for months I went around incessantly twiddling an imaginary moustache, muttering, "Once again, cher Hastings, you fail to use ze leetle grey cells."

The sole reason Christie is the world's top-selling author is her rampant genius for plotting. As a prose stylist she leaves much to be desired, while her characters are barely archetypes. Poirot is her richest creation, and he is a caricature of pure intellect, comical vanity and engaging pomposity.

Aware of this, and possibly fretting about Finney's excellence in the previous version, Branagh took some brave decisions in the quest to make the part his own by adding depth.

With the moustache, alas, he adds only width. A salt 'n' peppery, W-shaped horror stretching almost to the earlobes, it certainly distinguishes him from Finney (and Peter Ustinov, and David Suchet). It also distinguishes him from a sane person and distracts from his performance.

This is not such a bad thing since he is monstrously miscast, albeit by himself. He is too tall, thin, athletic and good-looking for a detective indelibly known to the public as plain, short, sedentary and spherical.

With Poirot's sudden shifts from langour to rage and the camera's indulgent dwelling on his cold, glacial blue eyes, he is also too grave. The production notes reveal, with no apparent ironic intent, that Branagh's preparations included listening "to recordings of 27 different Belgian accents by gentlemen of Poirot's age speaking in English" One appreciates the effort, but bringing a touch of the Method to Poirot is trying way, way too hard, and the over-earnestness infects every aspect of a ponderous, soporific movie which is by and large as immobile as the Orient Express. …

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