Here Comes the Belgian
Given we have the 1974 version featuring a cast of luminaries, endorsed by no less a critic than Agatha Christie (who wandered in by mistake, having bought a ticket for Zardoz), and a TV adaptation featuring the man many consider to be the definitive Hercule Poirot – canon completest David Suchet, was there a need for another Murder on the Orient Express? What in the name of premediated, cold blooded homicide did Kenneth Branagh (directing and cast in the lead) hope to achieve?
Well on this evidence, a more introspective, psychological take on Christie’s decadent mystery. Branagh, befitting a man who’s made a career from revaluating and reinterpreting classic works, usually (with apologies to conspiracy theorist Derek Jacobi) the writings of Shakespeare, has taken a second look at Christie’s arrogant know-it-all and decided there’s a little surface excavation to be performed, in addition to all the usual mannered pomp and circumstance we expect from an Agatha whodunit.
So Branagh’s Belgian, a moustache as grand as his years, is an OCD afflicted perfectionist – a man who likes both his morning eggs precisely the same height and choses to see human nature in equally regimented terms. “There’s only good and evil, nothing in between” he tells a British solider at the end of a Palestinian prologue – words we know will soon be tested, albeit in the most light-hearted, dramatically inert terms.
What follows is an enjoyably staged, if wholly inconsequential Sunday afternoon potboiler, which try as he might, Branagh can’t quite imbue with heft. Quaint is the watchword here. The direction’s old fashioned and enjoyable, with all manner of attempts made to make the confines of the titular train as visually dynamic and varied as possible – tracking alongside carriages, overhead shots of cramped cabins, characters refracted through the glaze of a compartment windows, hinting at their duality, perhaps duplicity. It’s all charming, and maybe enough to keep an audience engaged while they listen to Patrick Doyle’s in equal parts, exuberant and melancholy score, but something’s amiss and one senses, the director’s little grey cells are aware. He’s trying to compensate for it. What is it? Depth of characterisation.
Christie’s characters are typically one dimensional, seldom breaking free from the stranglehold of their plot function. Filmmakers have historically compensated for this by hiring strong character actors and big marquee names to effectively lend these bit parts a little star power. Sidney Lumet, for example, had Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery, all of whom added value. Branagh’s cast includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and his old theatre company pal, Judy Dench, and fine though they are, though none make a strong impression, it’s a troupe of supporting players that feels ordinary by comparison.
Whether by accident or design, the player who comes off best is Branagh himself. His Poirot, the only character with any kind of arc in the story, convinces as a man whose moral certainties are chipped away as the scale of the crime he’s investigating and the attendant moral complexities, become apparent. The movie concludes on a mournful, wounding note, which is felt, if not fully earned.
If Branagh had been minded to dig into his fellow passengers with the same interest, the film might have stood above previous versions. Instead, a scenic journey with a dab of intrigue is offered, which isn’t quite enough to dispel the notion that it was all a tad redundant.