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Murder on the Orient Express film review: all hail Kenneth Branagh and his roadkill moustache

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Man, that moustache. That moustache. That…moustache. Director Kenneth Branagh faced no small challenge in making a decent cinematic fist of Agatha Christie’s famous page-turner Murder on the Orient Express, among the author’s most acclaimed – and most outrageously plotted – detective stories. Talented filmmakers have tripped over the text before, such as the great Sidney Lumet, whose 1974 version is a rather drab and paint-drying affair, inexplicably remembered (and even celebrated at the time) as a pedigree adaptation. 

Then Branagh had to strap salt and pepper coloured roadkill on his face to raise the stakes further. The moustache Branagh, directing himself, wears as Hercule Poirot does not get singled out in the credits; nor is this great society of hair yet to receive recognition as a sovereign state. With time, with time. I could not decide what looked more ridiculous: the medium sized curly moustache hooked to his nostrils like a nose ring, or the large sized curly moustache it appears to have been pasted on top of.

Any actor inhabiting the beloved Belgian sleuth must do great things with – and for – facial hair; that is simply part of the deal. But this is next level Poirot-ing. How can an actor distract audiences from a dead animal stuck to their face in every scene? They can’t, but in Branagh’s entertaining adaptation the crazy ‘stache serves another purpose: to remind us that his version is, at least in part, a droll comedy, styled more in the manner of a graphic novel than a dusty literary adaptation.

Anybody familiar with Agatha Christie’s work understands her writing is architecture: you will find barely a trace of emotion in her characters, but by God she can hang a plot together.

The cast, as in Lumet’s film, form a star-studded Hollywood conga line – including Michelle Pfeiffer (the hubby-hunting widow), Daisy Ridley (the governess), Judi Dench (the scowling princess), Penélope Cruz (the bible basher) and Willem Dafoe (the creepy academic). Playing the eely, sinister gangster Ratchett, Johnny Depp is the only among them whose performance registers on the same frequency as Branagh’s, with anywhere near as much impact. He too is performing for a graphic novel. 

One of the characters on board the Orient Express, which travels through snowy mountains en route to Poirot’s destination in Calais, gets horrifically murdered. It is supposed to be the detective’s downtime, but Poirot agrees to take on the case and begins interrogating passengers, believing the killer remains on board.

Anybody familiar with Christie’s work understands her writing is architecture: you will find barely a trace of emotion in her characters, but by God she can hang a plot together. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that screen adaptations often feel clinical and contrived. The personalities they revolve around, even before the inevitable jiggery-pokery, lack a certain, shall we say, joie-de-vivre. At their worst (in both films and books) these people feel like components of an algorithm, calculated for creation of solution rather than story. <

There is an element of that in Murder on the Orient Express; several of the actors themselves don’t even seem to think their characters are interesting. The key to it is Poirot. Branagh – working from a script adapted by Michael Green, who co-wrote Logan and Blade Runner 2049 – earmarks the film as a comedy early on, embracing his protagonist’s intellect as a form, or result of, various idiosyncrasies. Thus an early moment when, after accidentally putting one foot in a large pile of manure, Poirot – disturbed by the “imbalance” of it – resolves to put his other foot in it too, in order to restore a sense of equilibrium. 

Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is like Malcolm Tucker (smug put-downs in lieu of expletive-laden tongue lashings) – people who hang around him will get zinged at one point or another.

Branagh never, however, goes the whole way with his comedy: never so far as to belittle or degrade his protagonist, or pass him off as some kind of Clouseau-esqe phony, rewritten for a world with little faith in the powers that be to make judgement calls. The determination to use Poirot to make us laugh, while maintaining great respect for his intellect and integrity, creates some highly interesting – if a little uneven – results comedically.

Branagh’s Poirot is like Malcolm Tucker (smug put-downs in lieu of expletive-laden tongue lashings) in that people who hang around him will get zinged at one point or another. Unlike Tucker, he retains the ability to cut through dramatically, delivering lines that can be genuinely profound and piercing. He may contemplate “the scales of justice” and the “fracture of the human soul” in between making us giggle by stepping in poo or scrutinizing his morning eggs.

To pull this sort of thing off requires a great love of the character, and a grasp of how singular Poirot would be if he were among us: how out-of-step his genius is with reality. Being able to do that marks a significant achievement; enough to distract me from Murder on the Orient Express’ significant shortcomings  such as those bland, star-squandering supporting characters. And being able to do that with roadkill stuck to your face, like a defiled drawing brought to life: that is quite something.

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