A one-’tache show that fails to tickle or de­light

Mur­der On The Ori­ent Ex­press (12A)

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - TELEVISION & FILM Q&A/REVIEWS - By Demetrios Matheou

IF it were easy, I wouldn’t be fa­mous,” de­clares Ken­neth Branagh’s Her­cule Poirot, in the ac­tor/ direc­tor’s new adap­ta­tion of Agatha Christie’s fa­mous yarn. While in­tended as a fun, throw­away ex­pres­sion of the Bel­gian de­tec­tive’s van­ity, the com­ment also re­flects the chal­lenge faced by the film­mak­ers. How do you make a well-worn tale fresh and stim­u­lat­ing, when so many view­ers al­ready know who­dun­nit?

Many com­ing to the film will be fa­mil­iar with Christie’s cun­ning so­lu­tion to the mur­der of a gang­ster on a snow­bound sleeper train in the Alps. Even for those who don’t, ar­guably it’s ap­par­ent some time be­fore the sleuth him­self calls it. All of which means that Branagh must de­vise some­thing truly spe­cial to com­pen­sate for fa­mil­iar­ity and a lack of crime thriller ten­sion. And un­for­tu­nately, he doesn’t quite de­liver. His train jour­ney is hand­somely mounted, for sure, in sump­tu­ous widescreen; the usual di­a­logue­heavy plot­ting is ac­com­pa­nied by a sprin­kling of ac­tion, not quite the Guy Ritchie treat­ment for Sher­lock Holmes, but more than pre­vi­ous Poirots; and Branagh’s de­tec­tive is a more dash­ing, more phys­i­cal ver­sion than we’re used to, whose pres­ence – in par­tic­u­lar, whose mous­tache – does take us into new ter­ri­tory.

But it’s rather hard to care about the case. And for a tale whose con­text is the op­u­lence of the iconic Ex­press, and whose best-known screen ver­sion, the 1974 film star­ring Al­bert Finny, fea­tured the epit­ome of the “all­star cast”, this falls short of the req­ui­site class.

A pro­logue takes place in Jerusalem, in 1934, where Poirot is en­gaged in the hunt for a stolen relic. Like so many lit­er­ary de­tec­tives, the Bel­gian does like a cap­tive au­di­ence. But here, as he must de­cide which of a rabbi, a pri­est and an imam is the guilty cul­prit, he ad­dresses a crowd of hun­dreds in front of the Wail­ing Wall. It’s a pre­pos­ter­ous scene, whose grandios­ity sug­gests that Branagh may have im­bibed a lit­tle of Poirot’s self-im­por­tance.

Com­pen­sa­tion comes on the smaller scale, as screen­writer Michael Green out­lines Poirot’s in­nate con­tra­dic­tion, the fact that the one qual­ity that makes him a great de­tec­tive – the need for per­fec­tion, bal­ance, the finely honed sense of when some­thing isn’t quite right – is also the cause of his prissi­ness and makes his life al­most un­bear­able.

Branagh the ac­tor runs with this. On the sur­face, there is a glint in the eye, an im­pec­ca­bly dap­per wardrobe and a beauty of a mous­tache – mous­taches, re­ally, as the ef­fect is of one lux­u­ri­ant an­i­mal laid upon an­other, a far re­move from Fin­ney and David Suchet’s dainty curlicues. Be­neath, a melan­choly and lone­li­ness, and the sense of a man never free from the con­stant de­mands on his tal­ent.

This is the chap who alights the Ori­ent Ex­press in Is­tan­bul, en route for a new as­sign­ment in London, though he be­comes more im­me­di­ately oc­cu­pied with the bru­tal death of a fel­low pas­sen­ger, the gang­ster Ratchet (an ap­pro­pri­ately ve­nal Johnny Depp). As an avalanche strands the train, Poirot goes to town.

It’s in these in­ter­ac­tions, be­tween Poirot and the stock types re­luc­tantly lined up for in­ter­view – the haughty count­ess, the mis­sion­ary, the pro­fes­sor, the gov­erness, the dead man’s but­ler – that adap­ta­tions in­vari­ably stand or fall. Branagh is ex­cel­lent in these scenes. How­ever, Fin­ney’s sus­pects in­cluded Lau­ren Ba­call, In­grid Bergman, Sean Con­nery, John Giel­gud, An­thony Perkins and Vanessa Red­grave; this has some de­cent ac­tors, but only Judi Dench and Michelle Pfeif­fer bring starry sparkle to the ta­ble.

Too of­ten it feels like a one­man show. And the di­rec­tion and writ­ing, while strain­ing for im­port, don’t do enough to in­trigue, tickle or de­light.

Ken­neth Branagh’s ver­sion of this clas­sic doesn’t quite live up to past films.

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