The classic whodunnit makes a return to the big screen this week care of Murder On The Orient Express. It would be easy for me to classify this as an outdated, luvvie-packed adaptation of an overused Agatha Christie novel… and to a certain extent I’d be right. However the presence of Kenneth Branagh as both director and star makes this version one to investigate in my book.
Familiar though the tale may be, the last major release of it was 44 years ago. And while Branagh appears to be a pillar of the boring old acting establishment, he’s actually a lot more exciting than that. In my view he’s pretty underrated, despite his high profile. Declared a successor to Laurence Olivier at the start of his career, he went on to evade that restrictive label. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Celebrity, Rabbit Proof Fence and Thor are diverse examples from his bulging CV.
So as the press wax lyrical about Dame Judi Dench yet again, or bang on about whether Johnny Depp likes a tipple or not, I’ll take this opportunity to look at some of Branagh’s offerings. He doesn’t always get it right but at the same time he never rests on his laurels. Who better to play the persistent (yet rather hairy) train-bound investigator Hercule Poirot…?
The star’s most recent triumph came as a mere actor, rather than the multi-tasking performer/director/writer/producer role we associate him with. Dunkirk also saw Branagh working alongside another British institution, Christopher Nolan. This immersive and ear-splitting drama about the harrowing evacuation of Allied troops from French shores employed a clever three-pronged narrative to give viewers an almost documentary-style overview of what took place.
Branagh played Commander Bolton, who was tasked with overseeing activity on a pier under constant threat of German bombardment. The part required understatement and gravitas, qualities he possesses in abundance. The scene where he watched on helplessly as a vessel was sunk is truly powerful and lingers in the memory.
DEAD AGAIN (1991)
Shortly after his breakthrough movie role in Henry V (1989), Branagh was whisked off to Hollywood. There he made the perhaps surprising choice to direct and star in an old school psychological thriller with a distinct whiff of Tinseltown’s Golden Age. He brought then-wife Emma Thompson and pal Sir Derek Jacobi along for the ride, which had the enjoyably ludicrous title of Dead Again.
As Yank detective Mike Church, Branagh probed Thompson’s fetching amnesiac, who had a strange connection to composer’s wife Margaret Strauss. She was murdered in the Forties by husband Roman. In an intriguing twist the two leads played the Strausses as well as their modern day characters.
WILD WILD WEST (1999)
Branagh loves variety, and as with anyone who mixes it up there are going to be hits and misses. It’s part of what I admire about the man, though there’s less admiration involved when it comes to Wild Wild West. Director Barry Sonnenfeld was hotter than a freshly-hammered horseshoe after Men In Black. So it made sense to do another fantasy buddy movie based on a wacky concept, right?
Based on the Sixties TV show, former MIB Will Smith teamed up with Kevin Kline as secret agents in the days of stetsons and steam power. There were some awkward gags about Smith’s race, the political incorrectness compounded by Branagh’s wheelchair-bound villain Dr. Loveless. He was on the receiving end of cracks about his disability. The film reportedly underwent reshoots due to its tone and I’d love to know what was changed. Despite the missteps I’m a sneaky fan of this movie. It’s a big mess but an entertaining one at least!
ALIEN LOVE TRIANGLE (2008)
’99 was a colourful year for Branagh to say the least. Wild Wild West stank up cinemas but there was a rockier ride to come via Alien Love Triangle. The title implies a certain amount of complication and that was definitely true here. Directed by Danny Boyle, it started off as part of a sci-fi anthology feature with Guillermo Del Toro‘s Mimic and the lesser-known Impostor from Gary Fleder. When they broke away as full length films poor Ken’s entry was left out in the cold, like an astronaut who’d forgotten his keys.
Co-starring Heather Graham and Courtney Cox, the story followed scientist Steven Chesterman (Branagh). He found his home life taking an unexpected and extraterrestrial turn when it’s revealed his wife is an alien! Clocking in at half an hour, it seemed the project would be atomized by movie history – however, there was a happy ending to the space-influenced saga. Nearly a decade on, critic Mark Kermode arranged a special screening to mark the closure of Swansea’s remarkable La Charrette cinema. Coverted from a train carriage, it played host to none other than Branagh himself, who made an appearance to pay his respects.
Somewhat appropriate then, that his latest venture sees him boarding part of a train again. Watch the trailer for Murder On The Orient Express below…
The movie steams onto screens this Friday.