Sunday, April 1, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

You know the drill: the Orient Express, the murder of a rather unpleasant chap (this time around also played by a rather unpleasant chap), one genius Belgian detective of taste, style and the facial hair of nightmares, and a trainload of suspects given by a cast of great actors.

To start, a double disclosure: Firstly, I am not a great lover of the works of Agatha Christie, or rather, I’m not terribly fond of so-called “Golden Age” (as with many genres, the actual good stuff came after the Golden Age for me) mysteries as a whole – with exceptions of course. Frankly, I often don’t enjoy the emotionless, game-like quality of this particular genre; I also can’t give a flying fart if Lord Suckbottoms was murdered by the butler or his nephew. Secondly, I am not the greatest fan of this version of the Orient Express’s director/Poirot Kenneth Brannagh either. He’s certainly a very talented man, but to me, he too often seems to use much of his talent to demonstrate how talented he is, which is the sort of approach that’ll sometimes make even a genius look like a hack.

However, I actually think Brannagh has his tendency for excess in general and excessive vanity specifically well under control for this film, using his considerable powers for much better things than self-aggrandization. As a matter of fact, the consistency with which Brannagh – in both of his roles for the production - makes good, intelligent, and interesting choices throughout is it what makes this a rather inspired mystery film. From time to time, mostly in the early parts of the film, Brannagh’s direction does get a wee bit showy, but that’s mostly an attempt to keep a film that mostly consists of one dialogue scene after the other gripping to an audience without putting all of the work on the shoulders of the actors alone. Kon Ichikawa did this sort of thing better in his movies about Kozure Kindaichi in the 70s, but then, Brannagh does keep his film flowing and comparatively tight for its genre, where the Japanese master of this form thrived on digressions of all sorts.

As an actor, Brannagh does an admirable job with his Poirot, avoiding either turning him into a caricature or just copying the style of David Suchet’s interpretation of the role. This Poirot doesn’t go overboard with dubious French or incessantly babbles about little grey cells, but reads as a somewhat eccentric, clearly brilliant man with a great capacity for compassion and understanding, in the end a very human genius. Which makes him just the right sort of Poirot for Brannagh’s interpretation of the mystery’s solution which attempts – and even half succeeds – to sell its inherent absurdity through emotion, an approach that is certainly further supported by much fine acting by everyone in the cast, be it Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., or Daisy Ridley. These are actors willing and able to understand and incorporate into their acting one of the finer points of what is going on here: that everyone in this film is hurt and broken, and acting out a role in front of Poirot - sometimes themselves too - and that not each character here is as good of an actor as the one playing them.

I usually see Brannagh as a director prone to too grand gestures, but in Murder, he demonstrates particular strength when it comes to visually incorporating telling details – obviously a rather important thing in a classic mystery – without feeling the need to excessively point them out to his audience. In a comparable vein, I also appreciated how Brannagh anchors the film’s narrative in its place and time without pretending the film itself does belong to that time, too. So there’s a much clearer view of the way concepts of class and race played out than you would find in most mysteries of its time without strictly making this a film about race and class. Instead, these issues build part of the social fabric the film’s narrative takes place in, adding veracity and further emotional resonance that keeps the film far away from the abstractness that kills a mystery for the type of viewer I am.

All this makes Brannagh’s Murder on the Orient Express easily one of my favourite films in the classic mystery style. It may not be as incisive as Gosford Park but unlike the Altman film, it is aiming to make a perfect modern specimen of a form instead of deconstructing it. In this, it succeeds splendidly.

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