“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 – and having just dodged the new BBC Little Women over Christmas, I was worried I’d caught the same faux fatigue. I’ve already seen a stage play of Louisa May Alcott’s perennial, while the still-fresh 1994 Winona Ryder/Christian Bale film with a young, scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst sits in my DVD collection.
Luckily, I realized my aversion to the Beeb’s take wasn’t because Winona Will Forever Be My Jo March! – it was because the new three-part show looked genuinely bad. The American accents sounded atrocious, and the actresses looked more like college girls in 2017 than impoverished sisters during the Civil War. (Dunst at least was the right age to play Amy.)
Agatha Christie’s 1934 Murder on the Orient Express, featuring her best-known creation – genius detective Hercule Poirot – is another novel regularly adapted for stage and screen.
I saw a lot of online negativity around the release of director-star Kenneth Branagh’s new blockbuster Orient. A perfectly good, Oscar-nominated 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation already exists, starring Albert Finney, the argument kept going, so there was no need…
Au contraire, mon ami! OK, no need maybe, but judging by the box office, people were pulled in by the promise of 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 long-running 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, an OTT moustache and little perfectionist quirks, like straightening peoples’ ties. 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.
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, giving us the first chance to see Daisy Ridley outside Star Wars, and she’s fantastic, like a lighter, less grating version of Keira Knightley. Rising actress Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) is a enigmatic aristocrat, and Leslie Odom Jr. (Tony winner for Hamilton) is Dr Arbuthnot – played in ’74 by that old dinosaur Sean Connery.
Fresh off Beauty and the Beast, Josh Gad is the gangster Ratchett’s assistant, bringing us to another problem people have with the movie – Ratchett being 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.
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 meant as an immersive experience, with a much-raved about epic five minute 65mm Steadicam closing shot. It’s like being in a theatrical snow globe, and really captures the allure of the golden age of travel. And I hate travel.
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.
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