New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - THIS WEEK IN... - Sally Wil­liams

Sir Ken­neth Branagh and the Queen of Crime

Dame Agatha Christie “had al­ways been al­ler­gic” to cin­ema adap­ta­tions of her books, her hus­band Max Mal­lowan was quoted as say­ing. “She didn’t like her char­ac­ters to be por­trayed on book cov­ers ei­ther,” says James Prichard, her great-grand­son.

Agatha, who wrote 66 de­tec­tive nov­els be­tween

1920 and 1976, trans­lated into around 45 lan­guages, is the most widely read nov­el­ist in his­tory, with sales of more than two bil­lion copies world­wide. There have been 23 film adap­ta­tions of her books in the UK alone, not to men­tion the mul­ti­ple TV se­ries. And now we have Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press.

Di­rected by Sir Ken­neth Branagh (who also plays Bel­gian de­tec­tive Her­cule Poirot), it fea­tures a pa­rade of greats from stage and screen, in­clud­ing Johnny Depp, Pené­lope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek

Ja­cobi. There is also the sur­prise in­clu­sion of Sergei Pol­unin, the dancer who walked out of the Royal Bal­let in 2012, who makes his screen de­but as Count An­drenyi, an aris­to­crat and a bal­let artist of global renown.

It’s pos­si­ble that there haven’t been so many stars gath­ered to­gether in one movie since the last big-screen adap­ta­tion of Mur­der on the Ori­ent

Ex­press, di­rected by

Sid­ney Lumet. The cast in­cluded In­grid Bergman,

Al­bert Fin­ney (as Poirot), An­thony Perkins and Sir

John Giel­gud, and it was made in 1974.

The 2017 ver­sion, co-pro­duced by Ri­d­ley

Scott, with a screen­play by Michael Green (the writer of Blade Run­ner 2049 and Alien: Covenant) sets up the clas­sic who­dun­nit with 14 strangers board­ing the long-dis­tance pas­sen­ger train that con­nects Is­tan­bul with Paris. These in­clude Car­o­line Hub­bard, an Amer­i­can wi­dow (Michelle Pfeif­fer), the Rus­sian Princess Dragomiroff (Dame Judi) and her maid Hilde­garde Sch­midt (Olivia Col­man). A busi­ness­man named Ratch­ett (Johnny Depp) is mur­dered at night in the com­part­ment next to Poirot. The train gets ma­rooned in an avalanche and the plot follows Poirot’s in­ter­ro­ga­tion of each of the pas­sen­gers in the hunt for the killer.

The ap­peal of the film is clear – stars are not be­ing asked to play any­thing run-of-the-mill. They are show­cased in 1930s glam­our, dress­ing for din­ner (even on a train) and the cooks pro­duce de­li­cious fan­cies such as wal­nut souf­flés.

“I liked the sense that I could let the au­di­ence es­cape into that world,” says Ken­neth (56), “where the de­tails of what the char­ac­ters are touch­ing, see­ing, eat­ing, drink­ing, wear­ing are a sig­nif­i­cant part of the plea­sure.

“We live in a world where ev­ery­thing is so tran­sient and quick. It seemed to me a pe­riod in which, from a piece of linen to a glass of wa­ter to an ar­range­ment of flow­ers, there could be a way of evok­ing a paren­the­sis of calm in an in­cred­i­bly rushed life.”

An “avid reader of crime fic­tion”, he last read the book years ago, but ad­mits to be­ing sur­prised when he reread it. “I’d for­got­ten how it worked out!

“I liked the en­sem­ble na­ture of it,” he con­tin­ues. “I like it be­ing en­closed in snow, the claus­tro­pho­bia. And it’s a tale that sums up the golden age of travel – a world in which you feel the miles un­der your feet.

“Agatha Christie de­scribed her work as en­ter­tain­ment and dis­missed any other claims for her work. But she leaves holes,” he says. “In­vi­ta­tions to go a little deeper. I think she def­i­nitely asks whether re­venge is worth­while – can you forgive, when do you stop hurt­ing? – and says that loss has to be ac­knowl­edged be­cause it can pro­vide a poi­son that can cre­ate more crime.”

He saw an­other, more ger­mane, theme – what hap­pens when a mob rules. “When feel­ing drives ac­tion”

– a force “we are def­i­nitely awash with”.

He had long dis­cus­sions with screen­writer Michael Green and Jim Clay, the film’s pro­duc­tion de­signer, about how to pin down key de­tails from the

pe­riod. “I wanted foren­sic de­tail, so you feel as though you’ve taken res­i­dence on the train and are taken into a much more dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ment,” re­veals Ken­neth.

When the avalanche hits the train, it comes to a stop on a creaky old viaduct in the moun­tains. Ken­neth in­tro­duces the idea that pas­sen­gers can es­cape. ”It puts a lot of jeop­ardy, a tick­ing clock in the way of the story.”

His Poirot is slightly evolved from the orig­i­nal char­ac­ter. Ev­ery­thing there is to love about Poirot is here – his groom­ing rou­tine, in­tel­lect and ap­petites. But there is also some­thing that doesn’t ap­pear in the novel.

“He car­ries some se­crets that the books seem to hint at,” says pro­ducer James Prichard. And Ken­neth brings an­other strength – ”He’s a good-look­ing Poirot.”

Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press was first pub­lished in 1934 – six years af­ter Agatha’s painful di­vorce from her first hus­band Archie Christie, a mem­ber of the Royal Fly­ing Corps (and the fa­ther of her only child, Ros­alind), who left her for an­other woman. Around a year af­ter her di­vorce, she went on a trip to the Mid­dle East and met Max Mal­lowan, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, at a dig in Ur,

Iraq. She was 39 and he was

25. They were mar­ried in 1930 and stayed to­gether un­til her death in 1976.

Agatha first trav­elled on the Ori­ent Ex­press in 1928 – the year of her di­vorce and her first solo trip abroad. For years af­ter that, she ac­com­pa­nied Max on digs in Iraq and Syria, of­ten via the Ori­ent Ex­press. Many of her nov­els are set in Eng­land, though now and then she moved the ac­tion to a set­ting such as a steamer in Death on the Nile or an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig in Me­sopotamia.

The nov­el­ist, like many artists, drew in­spi­ra­tion from real-life in­ci­dents. In 1929, an Ori­ent Ex­press train was trapped by a bl­iz­zard in Tur­key and ma­rooned for six days. In 1931, an Ori­ent Ex­press train on which Agatha was trav­el­ling got stuck for 24 hours due to rainfall.

Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press was filmed at Longcross Stu­dios, in Sur­rey. The en­sem­ble of stars “were very play­ful, ebul­lient and like naughty school­child­ren at times”, says Ken­neth. “Judi is a big part of that. She has a ca­pac­ity to switch from daft­ness into a con­cen­trated per­for­mance and she en­cour­aged the oth­ers to keep up.” (Judi would later joke that the per­son she’d most like to bunk up with in a rail­way sleeper car is co-star Josh Gad.)

And un­like many all-star-cast films, Ori­ent Ex­press doesn’t have fa­mous peo­ple turn­ing up in re­lays. They were all in the same rail­way car­riage – of­ten for hours at a time. “Typ­i­cally, I need some space when I’m work­ing, I just need to get away from ev­ery­thing,” says Michelle Pfeif­fer (59). “So I was a little ner­vous about that. But for­tu­nately, ev­ery­one was re­ally charm­ing and en­ter­tain­ing. Josh would prac­ti­cally do stand-up, so we cer­tainly weren’t bored.”

“It was a fes­ti­val at­mos­phere,” says Olivia Col­man (43). “Ken would come in with quiz ques­tions to keep us happy.”

Mean­while, Judi (82) played ev­ery­thing from board games to cha­rades and Derek Ja­cobi (79) did cross­words.

Is­tan­bul sta­tion was built in the stu­dio in Sur­rey as was the train it­self – a ma­jes­tic lo­co­mo­tive with four car­riages. (The car­riage in­te­ri­ors were con­structed a sec­ond time to al­low film­ing in­side.) Hy­draulics and air bel­lows be­neath each car­riage helped to con­vince the cast they were rid­ing on an ac­tual train, as well as vir­tual mov­ing scenery on LED screens.

“If you suf­fer from mo­tion sick­ness, as I do, it was a night­mare,” says Tom Bate­man (28), who plays Bouc, Poirot’s side­kick. “I had to pop a bot­tle of Cham­pagne and walk through the car­riage, and talk to all the pas­sen­gers and pour them Cham­pagne. It wasn’t only mo­tion sick­ness, it was a bit like try­ing to jug­gle on a uni­cy­cle.”

Ken­neth’s ap­proach was to sur­prise his cast with an un­scripted scene to make the ac­tion more con­vinc­ing, such as get­ting them to watch a short film re­lated to the plot and shoot­ing their re­ac­tions.

“I love stuff like that,” re­veals Olivia. “If you think too much or pre­pare too much, of­ten that is the death of it.”

“I hate first days on any film,” ad­mits Willem Dafoe (62), who plays Ger­hard Hard­man, an Aus­trian pro­fes­sor. “Ken in­sisted on shoot­ing per­haps the most in­volved in­ter­ro­ga­tion scene be­tween me and Poirot on my first day on set. He wanted the scene charged with nerves.”

Ken­neth also em­braced re­lent­less pre­ci­sion as his guid­ing aes­thetic. He never shot un­less some­one had been around with a ruler making sure each glass, plate, knife and fork was in exactly the right spot. “Ev­ery flower had to be the same height, the stalks had to be the right height, with the right level of wa­ter,” he says. “Dishes had to be his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate. What­ever you see be­ing eaten is from that time.” This in­cluded a huge baked and glazed cod. “It was a time when gela­tine and brawn were used a great deal. I can tell you they have a short life cy­cle un­der film lights – they get pretty whiffy.”

All the train fit­tings were ei­ther Ori­ent Ex­press orig­i­nals or copied from orig­i­nals, from the seats that un­folded to be­come beds right down to the coat hooks and door latches.

Au­then­tic­ity also gov­erned the cos­tumes, which are mostly hand­made. Alexan­dra Byrne, the cos­tume de­signer, was “very kind be­cause she pro­tected my skin from all the wool,” says Michelle. “I am very sen­si­tive to wool. I get itchy.”

Both Johnny Depp and Michelle were “very clothes-ori­ented”, says Ken­neth, fly­ing cast in for fit­tings months ahead of when they were re­quired. “The first time I met Johnny, it was one o’clock in the morn­ing, and he was walk­ing up and down in the cos­tume room at Longcross Stu­dios, try­ing out coats and walk­ing sticks.”

The fab­ric for Poirot’s suits was spe­cially wo­ven in a mill in Scot­land to en­sure the drape and move­ment was “true”. But per­haps the most star­tling prop is Poirot’s mous­tache. In the books, Poirot’s mous­tache is de­scribed as “gi­gan­tic” and “amazing”. In Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press, he is “a little man with enor­mous mous­taches”.

Agatha was said to be dis­ap­pointed with Al­bert Fin­ney’s whiskers in the 1974 film (“I wrote that my de­tec­tive had the finest mous­tache in Eng­land,” she al­legedly said. “But he didn’t in the film. I thought that was a pity.

Why shouldn’t he have the best mous­tache?”). Now Ken­neth has set a stan­dard of fa­cial shrub­bery that few can hope to equal. He sees it as a “vi­sor” and a “mask” that also hints at mil­i­tary ser­vice.

“There is more sub­stance and bulk, more growl in the mous­tache,” he says. It is also a use­ful aid in de­tec­tion. “Peo­ple around him, I cer­tainly felt, were fo­cus­ing on the mous­tache and not on him check­ing them out.”

Ken­neth tried grow­ing his own, but in the end went for a stick-on ver­sion. “Every­time you made Ken laugh, it would peel off,” tells Tom.

“I do remember get­ting the first email jpeg of the mous­tache and see­ing some­thing that took mag­nif­i­cence to a mag­nif­i­cent de­gree,” re­calls Michael. “I just gig­gled to my­self and thought, ’Can we cre­ate a movie where the mous­tache by the end doesn’t ap­pear dis­tract­ing be­cause you are so in­volved in the story?’”

‘Ev­ery flower had to be the same height, the stalks had to be the right height, with the right level of wa­ter’

with her Dame Agatha

Max, sec­ond hus­band

t who ar­chae­ol­o­gis an

her ju­nior. was 14 years The reclu­sive nov­el­ist did not ap­prove of her books be­ing turned into films.

Di­rec­tor and lead ac­tor Sir Ken­neth with Michelle Pfeif­fer. The glam­orous ac­tress plays a man- eat­ing Amer­i­can wi­dow in the film. Braced for a ruff ride

are (fro m left) Daisy Ri­d­ley, Olivia Col­man and Dame Judi Dench.

From left: Lucy Boyn­ton, Dame Judi, Michelle, Daisy,

Pené­lope Cruz and Olivia. Above in­set: Pené­lope plays a mis­sion­ary. Right: Johnny Depp, pic­tured with Josh Gad, stars as a busi­ness­man who is mur­dered.

Al­bert Fin­ney’s Poirot mous­tache (be­low) didn’t ex­cite Agatha, but per­haps Ken­neth’s would be more to her taste?

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