Clas­sic case of mur­der

KEN­NETH BRANAGH DI­RECTS AND STARS IN THE NEW MUR­DER ON THE ORI­ENT EX­PRESS RE­MAKE

The Gulf Today - Panorama - - Contents - by John An­der­son

When he was an ado­les­cent, Ken­neth Branagh’s mother started read­ing de­tec­tive fic­tion, and one ti­tle in par­tic­u­lar — Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press — re­ally caught his eye. “It’s a great ti­tle,” said the ac­tor/di­rec­tor,

56. “So clear, so di­rect, so punchy. And con­fi­dent. I re­mem­ber read­ing it back then and re­ally rip­ping through it.”

By com­par­i­son, said Branagh — whose new adap­ta­tion of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel opened yes­ter­day — it took him seven at­tempts and 25 years to get through War and Peace.

“Now, I’m not say­ing Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press is a bet­ter book,” said Branagh, puck­ishly, “but Tol­stoy deals with so many char­ac­ters that are so hard to fol­low, and Agatha Christie has about 15 who are po­ten­tially cen­tral to the ac­tion and you know who ev­ery­one is. What she does is a real jug­gling act” — and one that Branagh tries to em­u­late on screen in his highly stylised, vis­ually lush adap­ta­tion set aboard a train bound from Is­tan­bul to Paris, car­ry­ing a dozen po­ten­tial mur­der­ers, and one nasty, ven­ti­lated corpse.

The movie fea­tures an in­ter­na­tional cast that in­cludes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeif­fer, Pené­lope Cruz, Judi Dench, Manuel Gar­ci­arulfo and Branagh him­self — as the elab­o­rately mous­ta­chioed de­tec­tive Her­cule Poirot. It de­parts from both the book, which be­gan with a re­cap of a crime Poirot had just solved, and the 1974 movie, which re­caps a dif­fer­ent crime — the one Christie based on the Lind­bergh baby kid­nap­ping, and which will be at the cen­tre of the slay­ing com­mit­ted five years later, by a per­son or per­sons aboard the lux­u­ri­ous and, at one point, snow­bound train.

Branagh’s ver­sion, with its script by Michael Green (Blade Run­ner 2049), be­gins in Jerusalem, with Poirot in the mid­dle of solv­ing an an­tiq­ui­ties theft,

“I thought, ‘Let’s

see Poirot in ac­tion.

Start the movie with a dé­noue­ment,’” Branagh said, “so when he gets on the train we, the au­di­ence, al­ready know who he is, and how he’s smarter than the av­er­age bear.”

Branagh said he loved the 1974 film, “which was made by a mas­ter, Sid­ney Lumet, whom I had a chance to meet later in his life. He told me he wanted that movie to be a ‘romp.’ And that’s fine. I wanted our ver­sion to be en­ter­tain­ing, but I also wanted it to be about the brood­ing un­der­cur­rent in Christie’s novel, about the death of in­no­cence. I needed to feel from ev­ery­body that we’re not just in a romp, but a sit­u­a­tion which could mean life or death for ev­ery­one on board.”

As each vari­a­tion on Poirot has made quite plain, Mur­der on the

Ori­ent Ex­press is not a ve­hi­cle that at­tracts, or even thrives, on what one would call un­der­stated act­ing.

“It’s very easy to chew the scenery,” laughed

Josh Gad, who plays Mcqueen, sec­re­tary to Depp’s thug­gish Ratch­ett. “Es­pe­cially when you’re all in an in­ti­mate set­ting and there are so many peo­ple who could very well carry their own film, all work­ing in con­junc­tion to make an en­sem­ble story.” He said it all came down to “Ken­neth” and his dili­gence in giv­ing ev­ery­one their own mo­ment in the film, and do­ing so “in a way that doesn’t feel over­wrought.”

Les­lie Odom Jr. agreed. The ac­tor, who played Aaron Burr in Hamil­ton, plays Dr. Ar­buth­not, who is ro­man­ti­cally in­volved with Daisy Ri­d­ley’s

Mary Deben­ham. “The char­ac­ters are in life-or­death cir­cum­stances and also, not ev­ery­one is who they ap­pear to be,” he said. “So it lends it­self to some big per­for­mances — which is why it at­tracts ac­tors. There’s an op­por­tu­nity to have some fun with the char­ac­ters.”

Odom’s cast­ing is un­tra­di­tional; it’s hard to re­call a black ac­tor in a Christie adap­ta­tion at all, much less in a ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ment. The fact Ar­buth­not is a doc­tor in 1934 is ex­plained in the di­a­logue, but the romance goes all but un­men­tioned. “It’s def­i­nitely in there, though,” Odom said; if you see the movie again, you un­der­stand their ini­tial furtive­ness. “Peo­ple would have had opin­ions about that, and there’s a lit­tle bit of dan­ger there. I think Ar­buth­not and Deben­ham are on their way some­where, Am­s­ter­dam or Paris — some­where where they could make a life, have a fam­ily, a place where they’re go­ing to feel safe.”

No one is safe aboard the Ori­ent Ex­press, of course, once the mur­der is dis­cov­ered and Poirot is on the case. Speak­ing of which, what is that hard-shell piece of lug­gage the de­tec­tive car­ries around from train to sta­tion? Well, it seems that for all the mous­tache in Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press, there was go­ing to be con­sid­er­ably more.

“We cre­ated this im­mense, swirling thing that Agatha Christie her­self de­scribed as hav­ing a ‘tor­tured splen­dour,’ “Branagh said. “It was a real in­tro­duc­tion to me — when you have a mous­tache that im­mense, the level of main­te­nance is re­ally sig­nif­i­cant. So that lit­tle hand case he car­ries though the movie con­tains ev­ery con­ceiv­able pair of scis­sors, combs, curling tongs, wax, nos­tril clip­pers, hair clip­pers, ear-hair clip­pers and brushes for the mous­taches. And we had scenes of Poirot in full groom­ing mode.

But in the end, due to the ruth­less de­mands of pac­ing, we didn’t use it.”

“Hol­ly­wood is not in the busi­ness of mak­ing these epic, sweep­ing films any­more,” said

Josh Gad, a member of the all-star cast of the lat­est Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press. But even di­rec­tor Ken­neth Branagh’s main in­spi­ra­tion, David Lean, was well aware that beau­ti­ful pic­tures are noth­ing with­out a com­pelling cen­tral fig­ure — one like Her­cule Poirot. De­scribed by mys­tery nov­el­ist Agatha Christie as hav­ing an “egg-shaped head” and trou­ble “keep­ing his mous­taches out of his soup,” he is the self-de­scribed “world’s great­est de­tec­tive,” and a char­ac­ter into whom an ac­tor can sink all his teeth, while in­dulging in some of the screen’s more out­ra­geous French (ac­tu­ally Bel­gian) ac­cents.

Branagh as de­tec­tive Her­cule Poirot.

The cast of the movie in­clud­ing Branagh (left), Judi Dench, Wil­liam Dafoe, Pene­lope Cruz, Michelle Pfeif­fer, Josh Gad, Les­lie Odom Jr., Daisy Ri­d­ley and Johnny Depp.

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