Murder on the Orient Express (***1/2) – It’s never about whodonit

MOTOE

Murder on the Orient Express – 2017

Director Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay Michael Green based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Starring Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman

“Lies – and again lies. It amazes me, the amount of lies we had told to us this morning.” (said Bouc)

“There are more still to discover,” said Poirot cheerfully.

“You think so?”

“I shall be very disappointed if it is not so.”

The Poirot of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on The Orient Express is much more tired than the Albert Finney version of my extreme youth. Finney seemed ready to jump into the fray, whereas Branagh’s version always seems to remind people he’s on his way to retirement. On his way, but not quite yet.

This time, after solving the case of the missing religious artifact with the prime suspects being a priest, a rabbi and a cleric, he is asked to head to London for an impending case. The quickest route has to be the train line of the title, taking off from Istanbul the next morning. He gets on.

The mystery of the title happens the second night on the train. Someone is murdered. Then the train is stopped by landslide. The director of the train line, Bouc (Bateman) presses his friend, Poirot to solve the case quickly before the train gets moving again and gets to the next stop.

From this point, the interviews are fast and furious. If you think you’ve solved it or if you have seen or read previous incarnations, this train is still worth the ride. The point of Branagh’s take is not really to show a neat collection of clues and piecing the puzzle together. That said, it should be easy enough to surmise that there is more than one motive and suspect.

Where Branagh succeeds in this take of the story is in his realization that there must be a reason to watch a film more than once. The things going against that in any mystery is once you’ve seen it, the mystery is solved. It also doesn’t help to have such exaggerated vamp performances.

For these reasons, Branagh has included some carefully laden clues, gorgeous scenery, a humble soundtrack and some more subtle acting to reward repeat viewing. In short, he’s made a movie that draws you in while it pulls you down the track.

First of all there are very few scenes that come across as cheesy. Everyone is playing straight with no chaser. Even Derek Jacobi, who seems the very essence of a flaunt, has a muffle on it for once. In fact, only Poirot comes across as any sort of flamboyant, and like I said, he’s pretty subdued. And he’s rather polite, too. We just know that he has a big mustache and can’t turn down a good mystery.

The shots of the train and the environment it ambles through are excellent, for the most part. There are a couple of CGI moments, but those are forgivable in an age where a warm den with a computer outweighs any shot in inclement weather. We can definitely tell, in scenes like Poirot’s interrogation of Debenham (Ridley) and the final reveal, these people are not comfortable and for more reasons than their guilt or innocence.

Of the passengers, all of the performances are good, and a few of them great. Pfeiffer hasn’t chewed this much scenery since Dangerous Liaisons. Ridley’s counter to Poirot’s inquiries is fun, as she gives no quarter, nor does she expect any. My favorite is Bateman’s Bouc, in what should have been a throwaway role. His frank honesty adds an innocence that is required to give Poirot a sounding board off which to bounce his findings.

Most interesting is the scenery that Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use for many of the shots. There are many shots from differing vantages and through angled windows and mirrors that add another dimension to what could have been a boring and repetitive venture of questions and answers.

This is not necessary viewing, to be sure. It’s a matter of preference and whether or not you have a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned. It’s not necessarily the kind of film that will leave one puzzled. In truth, one would hold little chance to fully resolve the film based on the fact that evidence mostly comes to light for us in an orderly fashion throughout the last two acts.

It’s a good film though,. And it deserves a space for those who like to see a good story told well. Not well enough for awards, but definitely well enough for someone with nothing much to do.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

Advertisements

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (****) and Victoria & Abdul (***): Two pieces of a life continued

HerMajestyMrs.Brown

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown – 1997
Victoria & Abdul – 2017

Director (HMMB) John Madden, (V&A) Stephen Frears
Screenplay (HMMB) Jeremy Brock, (V&A) Lee Hall
Starring (HMMB) Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Antony Sher, Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Pasco, David Westhead, Gerard Butler
(V&A)  Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith

Seeing that Dame Judi Dench had reprised her role as latter-day Victoria 20 years after her first go-round must have been interesting to some. The first film grossed about 9 million world-wide, and this time it’s bordering on 5x that much. The passage of time has helped, one would guess. There is a much deeper appreciation for one of the best actresses of our time. Also, one could guess, there has been a swath of people who enjoyed the first film through other media. After having watched both in one day, I am glad that there can be sequels to movies about a Queen in the twilight of her reign, even if the sequel amounts to a little less of the same.

The first film, Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, is a measure of acting by three actors.

Dench earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Queen Victoria. To be sure, she gives a complete performance here. She’s a woman who’s given everything that she doesn’t quite want and by now mostly expects in her life. The thing she wants most, however, is the her husband. When we see her first, she’s in her third year of mourning Prince Albert. The film immediately brings in someone her husband had an immense fondness for in Scottish servant, John Brown (Connolly). The power of the film is presented in their subtle development of their relationship. It is really quite impressive because Connolly’s Brown is not a subtle man in the slightest.

Running earnestly roughshod through the lives of Victoria and her court, he ruffles feathers and gets panties in a bunch. While he never quite wins over the rest of the household, he certainly does win the affections of the Queen. It is a testament to Madden, Connolly and especially Dench that this never trips into areas that are really unknown. We see that there is genuine affection between both of them, but the public face is never quite revealed. This is the strength of the film and story. The public face of Victoria is never more than propriety, but it is never shown to be someone locked in the castle, either. She is a monarch, to be sure.

For his part, Connolly is incredibly engaging and committed to the performance. That he did not receive more substantial roles as a result of this film is a crime. He shows strength, perception and vulnerability in his role as a man who doesn’t realize he’s reached beyond his station in life. I truly enjoyed Connolly in this and every role I have seen him in and hope that somehow we see more of him.

The third winning performance is that of Antony Sher as Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Sher’s performance is a surprise to me, but apparently not to those who have seen him perform live. His Disraeli is a man of most lethal cunning, kind of Bill Clinton for the time. To be sure, you’d rather have him on your side, than working against you. It’s apparent that he’s got more going on than he reveals no matter to whom he is speaking. His charm, however, is undeniable. It’s born of intelligence that most around him just don’t have. If one compares the way Brown works the rest of the people in his life and is so completely out-maneuvered by Disraeli, the effect is immense and obvious.

To be sure, he is not a villain. He is the prime minister of a country whose constitution requires a monarch. More importantly, his party requires her conservative influence, which is lacking in the years since her husband’s death. Sher reveals all of the measures of these influences, and throws in a little arrogance for good measure. It’s a role I have enjoyed more with the passage of time.

Madden would go on to win an Oscar for directing in his very next film, Shakespeare in Love. He would also achieve modest financial success with many of his films until striking gold with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. His talent is in coaxing great performances out of good actors and classic performances from great actors. There are some beautiful scenes, but nothing that brings as much wonder as seeing the balance of power shift between Victoria, John, Benjamin and the people that surround them.

His portrayal of the people surrounding The Queen and Brown is more nuanced than one might expect, after years of Julian Fellowes productions come and gone. We are given subtle looks of concern and a smattering of ignorance. More importantly, we see John Brown overstep his bounds among the servants and the family, essentially presenting himself on a perch from which to be knocked off. When he does finally get a beating, two smart things happen. The director doesn’t make it obvious who may have done it and he also doesn’t play pity points for Brown. This only serves to make his relationship with the Queen less black and white. And that is good.

Billy-and-Connolly-and-Ju-006

Somewhat more obvious and less dramatic are the events of Victoria & Abdul. Historians and anglophiles alike were granted a repeat showing of the relationship between Brown and Queen Victoria. In life, it seemed an even more questionable relationship between what was possibly a charlatan and his target demographic: an older, forgotten person. Whether there is a certain truth to it, or it was the product of subtle historic racism is a question worth asking. It’s not a question that is asked as much here.

This time, we see an older, more defeated and seemingly lost Victoria, who confides to missing both her husband and John Smith terribly. This rings curious when one considers how distant she was toward the end of Smith’s life. Dench, however, is up to the task of making us relate to her misery. The opening shows the viewer an old, overweight woman who is being pushed through each day. The scene in the dining hall is a comic masterpiece, from the little boy running screaming his head off, to the adults running and screaming their heads off, to the Queen eating in a rapid pace compared to her guests right up to the point when she falls asleep mid meal.

Vic-3

The meeting and eventual friendship of the Queen and Abdul Karim (Fazal) seems a little rushed, compared to the straightforward negotiations between Smith and Victoria. The script appears to have its mind on other things, such as establishing the fact that Abdul is not a Hindu, but instead he is a peaceful Muslim. To the film’s credit, the scenes feel less political and more instructional.  There are no sideways jabs at Muslim phobia, it’s just plain old British panties in a bunch and the teasing of potential ribaldry.

This is also the place where the film differs from the more dramatic John Smith. It feels like Dench is the only actor that is caught up in a drama. Everyone around her seems to be in a comedy. This works, for the most part, if you’re not expecting Shakespeare. And I do mean Shakespearean comedy.

The scenery and images are sublime, and seeing Dench’s extension of her character works right up until the point where she gives her last speech, removing any of the doubt of her cognitive abilities.

It would have been more interesting if they’d left the question of her senility out there unanswered. And maybe if Abdul had some amount of depth to his character, maybe some question of his sincerity…

There’s none of that here, though. We get Fazal playing straight up and honest, to the point that his buddy and partner Mohammed (Akhtar) keeps thinking they have a chance to go home soon. This would lend itself to everyone being straight up. Having the Queen insist on calling him Munshi (teacher) removes any amount of character he might have accumulated in working an angle. Everything that happens makes him look the part of a puppet on a string. This is to the detriment of the story, but it works as comedy.

What doesn’t work as much is Izzard as the woeful Bertie. His character, as written, is even more incompetent than he was in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. Westhead’s Bertie takes a tongue lashing from Brown, but is otherwise rather unspectacular. In the new story, Izzard, Hall and Frears never pass up an opportunity to make Bertie appear to be the most incompetent of boobs.

The rest of the cast spends most of their time looking worried, offended or both. There is one particularly effective scene when Miss Phipps shows herself to be the lone voice of reason among the staff. For her trouble, she is granted the reward of giving the Queen an ultimatum that she had no part in deciding.

This is Dench’s show though, and she doesn’t waste her opportunity. Her understanding of the character is complete, to the point where we feel we literally know the Queen of England through the latter half of her life in watching these two films. The growth she shows from the first until the last scene feels authentic and weathered. Madden and Frears allow her the freedom to look completely uncomfortable with her lot in life.

It’s unclear whose decision it was to make it look like the Queen was completely washed from the sins of the oppression of the British Empire over their subjects. It’s a thin line to walk, making her so innocent, observant and wise at once. It doesn’t serve the story, but it definitely gives us the ability to see how brilliantly she can play it.

These films are not to be missed, if you want to see a master at her best. If forced to choose, I will take Connolly, Sher and Dench over Dench by ostensibly by herself.

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (**** out of *****)
Victoria & Abdul (*** out of *****)