Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

This... is a mustache, certainly, but not The Mustache.

The mustache was always going to be the star of Murder on the Orient Express. Not the precise, controlled mustache of years past, no: a luxuriant, impossible mustache, as big as the all-star cast of Kenneth Branagh's derailment of Agatha Christie's classic. The mustache is romantic, larger-than-life, and so is this iteration's Poirot. Mark Steyn compares Branagh's Poirot to Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes in the glamming-up, dumbing down department, and though Murder on the Orient Express isn't as silly as the recent Holmes outings, he touches on a point. This Poirot has been Holmes-ized, with a flair for action. He is big, he is beautiful (oh come on, Branagh's a bonny boy). His cape blows in the fresh mountain breeze. He strides atop a rail car. He chases a suspect. 

"Well, I never!" you exclaim, and you are right. This is not Poirot, so don't watch it as Poirot and you'll do okay. The scenery is arresting: an elegant piece of locomotive art steaming through Balkan mountain majesties. Doubtless the special features on the DVD will tell us how the whole thing was computer-generated, but I'd be happy to watch a feature-length film of the background shots. The cast was pedigreed but underused. How much does it cost to have Judi Dench dial it in? Most of the movie is Kenneth Branagh being fantastic: starting off the movie revealing a flashy solution to a non-canonical crime featuring a rabbi, a priest, and an iman (yes, even the movie acknowledges that this sounds like a joke set-up), tussling with suspects, flashing his blue eyes, and addressing an old photograph of "ma chere Katharine" with soulful soliloquies that would have played better as prayers.

Speaking of prayer, if you're really hot to trot to see a Poirot done right, hie thee to the library and check out the 2010 Murder on the Orient Express featuring the incomparable David Suchet. This version, I feel, gets at the heart of what makes Poirot tick: his longing for justice, and his comfortable conviction that he is there to see that justice meted out. Rarely, rarely have I seen a book-to-movie adaptation that makes a change that improves on the original, but here the screenwriters, aided by Mr. Suchet's pitch-perfect Poirot, make the detective grapple with his inability to perfectly administer retribution. Where Branagh substitutes a photo of chere Katherine, Suchet speaks to God, aided by his trusty rosary. It is better that way.

It's hard to speak of Murder on the Orient Express without talking about the solution. In this day and age, it's hard to imagine that many people don't know whodunit, but I won't spoil it here. Suffice it to say that in the most incomprehensible turn of all, Branagh neglects any discussion of one of the key elements of Christie's denouement, where Poirot expounds on the need for a formal system of justice to convict criminals, and the particularly English format of the trial.

It's been years since I've seen Sidney Lumet's highly acclaimed version starring Albert Finney as Poirot. I have requested it at the library, but in the meantime, to fulfill our longing to watch a perfect British mystery, we wandered only as far as our own movie collection and pulled Gosford Park off the shelf.

Gosford Park is the ideal form of the country house mystery -- guests down for the weekend, drama above and below stairs, a murder, an inspector. But here, the inspector is a a piece of comic incompetence played by Stephen Fry. "We only want people with a connection to the dead man!" he says, dismissing half the household from suspicion in fell swoop, ignoring evidence, destroying fingerprints, and missing every clue that director Robert Altman has laid out for you, the viewer, to pick up on over repeated viewings. Every scene, every prop, every toss-off bit of dialogue heard in passing has a connection to the dead man and the complicated household he's assembled. And, like Murder on the Orient Express, like all the best of the genre Murder Mystery, the theme is the long reach of sin and how it scars everyone it touches, until sin begets more sin.

And speaking of begetting, at the end of this new Orient Express, Poirot detrains at the remote station of Brod, where he is met by a British officer who gives him an urgent summons. "There's been a death... on the Nile!" Pretty prescient considering that the murder always takes place in the middle of the book. But Branagh seems to have no qualms about tinkering with the details, so expect the mustachioed marvel to careen through the Egyptian desert in a camel chase a la The Sheik. Once you've lost the mustache, it's all up for grabs.


Finicky Cat said...

Oh, dear. Why is it apparently so extraordinarily difficult to make a good movie? A friend went to see it, and said that for her ending ruined the thing. Now she wants to go back and read the story to see where else they messed up. Thanks for the review - and the Gosford Park recommendation. I'd never heard of it.

MrsDarwin said...

Oh, I envy you watching Gosford Park for the first time! It's one that richly rewards future viewings, as previously unnoticed details click into focus.

I will say that I was mostly entertained watching this MOTOE, because it's pretty, but it's not fulfilling because it's not much more than that. No one ever looks cold, you know? That was something the David Suchet version got very right -- the increasingly pale faces and red noses, the clumsy fingers, the layers of clothing. These little realistic details that make the world feel like more than a movie set.

Brandon said...

I finally got around to watching this, and concur completely with your assessment. In some ways it was more fun, and in others more flat, than I was expecting. Playing up the absurd side of Poirot is not a bad idea -- it is certainly there in Christie, and could make it stand out as a real contribution, particularly given that other portrayals definitely play down his absurdity -- but I was very struck by the fact that, for all the buffoonery and jokes, which made it seem like it was trying to be funny, it wasn't all that funny. And you don't want to emphasize the absurdity at the expense of the serious side of Poirot -- which, as you note, the Suchet version captures perfectly. (Gosford Park does make a good contrast here, because it is both immensely more funny and immensely more serious.)

I think they might have been better served by letting themselves break a bit more free from Christie and just aiming for a fun romp in the inspired-by category. As is, it's just neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring.

mrsdarwin said...

"I think they might have been better served by letting themselves break a bit more free from Christie and just aiming for a fun romp in the inspired-by category."

Yes, you're absolutely right. One felt the straining at the edges, as the filmmakers seemed to be restraining themselves from going off in some different direction out of faithfulness to the text -- and as a result, the movie was more unfaithful to Christie than it might have been had they followed the idea of the story rather than the given plot.

One can go too far in that direction, of course. Last night I sat down with my girls, who are on an Austen movie binge, and watched Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That was neither fish nor fowl if you like: just enough Austen to make you wish you were actually watching Pride and Prejudice, and zombies be damned. Elizabeth had a rather hair-trigger temper (all the odder because she was played by the actress who was such a gentle Cinderella), and Darcy seemed entirely miscast. Ah well. The Mrs. Bennet was at least superior to the lady in the A&E version, who was one-note all the way through, and that note shrill.

mrsdarwin said...

BTW, I did catch the Sidney Lumet version some weeks after seeing Branagh's version, and was taken aback at how thoroughly Lumet seemed to miss the point, encapsulated by the final shot of all the passengers in the car toasting each other with champagne. Give me Suchet's version any day. It's good enough to own, even.