“Not another remake!” is a familiar online cry, normally accompanied by declarations that Hollywood has run out of ideas.
The word ‘remake’ provokes a knee-jerk hostility. Having just dodged the new, BBC Little Women over Christmas, I was worried I’d caught the same faux fatigue. I’ve seen a stage play of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, while the still-fresh ’94 Winona Ryder film with a young, scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst is in my DVD collection.
I realized my aversion wasn’t because Winona Will Forever Be My Jo March! – it was because it looked genuinely bad. The accents sounded atrocious, and the actresses were more like sorority sisters in 2018 than impoverished, Civil War-era siblings. (Dunst at least was the right age to play Amy.)
Agatha Christie’s ’34 novel Murder on the Orient Express, featuring detective Hercule Poirot, has also been regularly re-crafted for screen. So there was a lot of online negativity around director-star Kenneth Branagh’s new blockbuster version; a perfectly good, Oscar-nominated 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation already exists, so there was no need…
Au contraire, mon ami! OK, no need maybe, but judging by the box office, people were attracted to this gorgeous new production – which loses a lot of the mystery and suspense of the Lumet version, while upping the action.
David Suchet’s performance in the BBC Poirot is considered closest to Christie’s peculiar, egghead creation. Where Suchet was an odd duck, Branagh’s detective is eccentric by way of a comedy Belgian accent, and an OTT moustache. He certainly knows his own worth, calling himself the “greatest detective in the world”.
We meet him in Jerusalem as he closes a preposterous jewel theft case (easily the dullest bit), and then finally he’s on the Orient thundering west across Europe when an avalanche derails the train. While trapped high in the stunning Alps, a passenger named Ratchett is murdered, making everyone in First Class a suspect.
This brings us to another problem people have with the movie – Ratchett is played by none other than alleged train wreck Johnny Depp.
Depp-boycotters should know that despite starring prominently in the marketing bumf, he plays a) the most hateful character (“I do not like your face,” says Poirot) and b) is swiftly bumped off, with a troupe of Hollywood actors all in the frame for his brutal stabbing. Imagine if they’d cast Harvey Weinstein as a baggage handler.
Was it Judi Dench’s Russian princess? Or could it have been Michelle Pfeiffer’s vampy husband-hunter, or Penélope Cruz’s missionary (reminding me of her early role as a nun in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother)?
There’s an achingly relevant younger cast, including Beauty and the Beast’s Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley (a less grating Keira Knightley), and rising actress Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) as a enigmatic aristocrat. Plus Leslie Odom Jr. (Tony winner for Hamilton) is Dr Arbuthnot – played in ’74 by that old dinosaur Sean Connery.
Although the critics have insisted that it all “offers nothing new,” the contemporary cast open the story up with different races, nationalities and ages – even if everyone only gets a thin slice of screen time. (Michelle Pfeiffer alone is worth seeing.)
Cinema continues to modernize and amaze us, and Orient is an immersive experience, capturing the allure of the golden age of travel. And of course there’s that much-raved about epic five minute 65mm Steadicam closing shot.
Perhaps I liked this film for superficial reasons, but it was surprisingly poignant, presenting a moral conundrum for Poirot – the man who sees everything as right or wrong with no in-between.
Leaving me only to add that I didn’t cry at the end when the Patrick Doyle score was playing. I got some orange juice in my eye, and anyone who says otherwise is 100% lying.