Murder on the Orient Express – Film Review

Despite its status as one of Agatha Christie’s finest works, it’s been more than forty years since superlative whodunnit Murder on the Orient Express last graced the big screen with Sidney Lumet’s celebrated adaptation. By modern standards that makes Kenneth Branagh’s remake long overdue. It’s a shame, then, that it’s hardly worth the wait as Branagh struggles to prevent this handsomely-mounted thriller from falling off the rails.

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Though Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) throws a few mischievous tweaks into his script, the plot essentially remains the same. The meticulous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, sporting an inconceivably dramatic ‘tache) joins an eclectic array of first-class passengers aboard the titular locomotive. What begins as a exquisite trip across Eastern Europe swiftly takes a more sinister track when a fellow passenger is discovered dead in a locked cabin. Everyone is a suspect as the Belgian bloodhound starts sniffing for clues and deduces that the murderer must still be hiding on board the train.

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Like Lumet’s effort, Branagh has attracted a glittering cast to play his menagerie of eccentric travellers. Dame Julie Dench is a fussy Russian aristocrat; Olivia Coleman plays her timid servant; Michelle Pfeiffer is a flirty widow; Daisy Ridley shines as a sharp-witted governess; Leslie Odom Jr plays a noble doctor; Johnny Depp is a shifty gangster, while Josh Grad and Derek Jacobi play his twitchy secretary and tetchy butler; and Willem Defoe rounds out the main players as a disagreeable Austrian academic.

The starry nature of the cast is outshone only be the majesty of the cinematography. Shot in 65mm, the movie basks in the luxury and lavishness of the era, the camera soaring over snowy mountain tops and plummeting down vertiginous drops as the train teeters upon a towering trestle after being halted by an avalanche. This indulgent style adapts surprisingly well to the claustrophobic confines of the carriages, Branagh deploying elegant tracking shots and woozy angles that can be so effective in building tension.

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That the movie then fails to sustain any sense of suspense is surprising. Part of the problem is that modern audiences are so well-versed in the genre that all the old-fashioned tricks and misdirections inevitably underwhelm – one deduction relating to a smudged passport is so blindingly obvious it brings into question Poirot’s status as the world’s greatest sleuth.

More troublesome, though, is the lack of spark between the passengers. Some mild attempts to stoke racial tensions aside, there’s an absence of animosity or drama between those on board the train and too many of the travellers feel like caricatures rather than fully-fleshed characters. Branagh in particular allows Poirot’s amusing peculiarities to overshadow his genius.

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It’s disappointing because there’s an engaging movie hiding amid this tired mix of revelations, reveals and red-herrings – the desperately gripping denouement is masterfully executed as the facts of the case push Poirot’s morality to its limits. If only the audience’s attention spans hadn’t disembarked long before the train lurched into its powerfully moving destination.

Runtime: 114 mins (approx.)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Michael Green
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp

 

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Dunkirk – Film Review

Unfolding in a tight, heart-thumpingly tense 106 minutes, Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s shortest film since his micro-budget debut Following in 1998. It’s also his most absorbing, arresting and visually astounding film yet. Stripping away much of the sci-fi frills and mind-bending trickery that has defined the writer-director’s career this far, Dunkirk zeroes in on an emotionally devastating story of ordinary men trapped in an extraordinary bid for survival that will pin you to your seat and leave you breathless and paralysed by the sheer weight of its clockwork calculated tension.

The restrained filming style is by no means an indication of dimmed ambitions on Nolan’s part. Filmed on the sands and seas surrounding the real-life Dunkirk, this film is another technical triumph for the filmmaker. Every single detail of every frame has been exhaustively researched, with period-correct Spitfires and British naval destroyers painstakingly assembled to add to the movie’s verisimilitude. Even the taut, dizzying set-pieces have been executed with a metronomic precision.

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Seemingly taking inspiration from Winston Churchill’s famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech made in the aftermath of the disastrous Operation Dynamo, Dunkirk splits the action between three individual storylines set on land, air and sea.

There’s Finn Whitehead’s petrified young private who, along with many thousands of British soldiers, finds himself stranded on Dunkirk’s beaches, hemmed in on all sides by the advancing Nazi forces, as he desperately searches for a way to get home. Mark Rylance plays an ageing mariner who bravely sets sail across the Channel to rescue our boys after the Royal Navy commandeers private boats to aid their efforts. And then there’s Tom Hardy’s ice cool Spitfire pilot, racing through the skies to protect the approaching British flotillas from ruthless air raids by German bombers.

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All three of these harrowing journeys unfold in their own timelines – Whitehead spends a week in Dunkirk waiting for rescue, Rylance’s voyage lasts a day, and Hardy’s flight takes place of the course of just one hour – with only fleeting intersections until they ultimately collide in an intensely incendiary finale.

The overall effect of this time-wimey trickery is strikingly immersive, deftly reflecting the frighteningly bewildering environment British troops found themselves trapped in 1940. Like them, we have hardly any idea of what’s happening around us, how much time has passed or even what time of day it is – our only focus is on how these men will make it out alive.

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What makes events feel so immediate and visceral is Nolan’s claustrophobic direction. With the action shot largely in unflinching close-ups, we’re dropped right into the heat of the battle as Luftwaffe planes scream down from the skies and enemy fire erupts from every direction. These sounds are raised to almost deafening levels, you can feel the rumble of missile strikes and the rattle of gunfire reverberate through your bones.

Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer’s ferociously evocative score, with it’s ticking pocket watch and endlessly ascending Shepherd’s tone, drags you to the edge of your seat unable to look away. It’s as close as you’d care to get to actually being on those beaches with the grey, restless ocean sloshing at your boots.

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The bare bones filmmaking style extends to the main cast, too. With almost no dialogue for the entire duration, the characters are unburdened by intricate backstories or complex emotional arcs – they’re completely unnecessary. Rather, the story is told firmly in the present moment, with the character’s emotions – be it fear, desperation, selfishness or selflessness – relayed through their actions rather than their words.

This is perhaps Nolan’s biggest achievement with Dunkirk: eschewing the excessive sentimentality or chest-thumping heroics typical of war movies. Here it’s the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments that carry the most weight, whether its a boy telling a white lie to a shell-shocked soldier or a tommy gratefully grasping a bottle of beer from a cheering local. When the visuals are as devastating, exhilarating and powerfully moving as these, stories really don’t need anything else.

Runtime: 106 mins (approx.)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh