At the Movies

Michael Wood

The great detective never rests, and perhaps doesn’t want to, although in Kenneth Branagh’s new film he does express a wish for a day or two off. No such luck, of course, something has to happen even in a slow and glossy movie. He starts off by dealing with a theft in Jerusalem, runs into the titular murder on the Orient Express, and at the end is summoned to a sequel, I mean to Egypt for a job that sounds as if it might involve a death on the Nile.

Hercule Poirot has been escaping from print into plays and films almost since he was born in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, José Ferrer, Tony Randall and many others have brought him to some sort of audio or audio-visual life, but the relatively recent personifications by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet dominate most memories. None of these figures much resembles the ‘short, stout, elderly man, his hair cut en brosse’ that Agatha Christie describes. Well, they often manage the stout bit, but for the rest they are tallish, more like middle-aged, and Finney’s hair in particular looks like a terminally oily black carpet. They all have moustaches with an old-fashioned twirl, but we had to wait for Branagh for the real, baroque thing. His moustache stretches out wide beyond the mouth, a luxuriant, greying affair that resembles a facial ferret, and then continues beyond the twirl halfway across the cheek. There is a small dab of beard on the front of the chin to complete the effect. You might say that without the moustache Branagh would be no sort of Poirot at all.

What is a Poirot? Christie’s evocations are too sketchy and conventional to provide an authentic original – her Poirot is a cluster of ideas rather than a person. Let’s say, thanks to Wikipedia, that he is the detective in 33 novels, a play, and a lot of short stories. We can add that he is Belgian, a masterful mangler of the English language, always right, generally insufferable. Finney and Ustinov easily top the charts for the insufferable aspect, and Suchet is surely the most memorable and interesting incarnation, in part because he played the role on television for so long (from 1989 to 2012), and in part because he made the figure come alive, prissy, pompous and predictable in the best sense.

But then who is Branagh? Is there a (fictional) man behind the moustache? Well, there is a director, who is also Branagh, and Michael Green, a thoughtful and inventive scriptwriter. They give shape and sense to a particular notion of Poirot. But it is Branagh’s acting that makes the notion work. I say this as a non-fan of his Shakespeare films (Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing), and someone who thinks his Harry Potter performance was a sad slump compared to the antics of his theatrical peers, notably those of his ex-wife Emma Thompson. He does much better with Poirot. The element of self-pastiche is never far away, but it is very discreet, as is his supposedly Belgian accent – not realistic, of course, but not stealing the scene all the time either. He is athletic, gets into fights, clambers around the scaffolding of a dizzying alpine bridge, and has an old lost love. He gazes at her photograph for inspiration, and says at one point that ‘romance never goes unpunished.’ We can imagine David Suchet’s Poirot shuddering at all this physical and emotional action, and we realise this is a post-Bond detective, he can’t be shielded from the box-office benefits of danger and at least the memory of sex.

The film looks comfortably grand. It has well-managed, slightly comic crowd scenes, ambitious high-angle shots, misty images of Istanbul and the Bosphorus, and a postcard Croatia full of ravines and snow. The music, by Patrick Doyle, is smooth and romantic throughout, even when the soundtrack accompanies a murder in process. It signals entertainment rather than drama, an evening of contained movie crime and its resolution.

There is a moral dilemma at the climax – not to be revealed here even if almost everyone knows what it is – that is emphatically staged rather than explored. But then the novel doesn’t even stage it, just names it and waves at it. Here the full cast poses behind a table across the mouth of a tunnel, looking like a picturesque parody of Buñuel’s parody of The Last Supper. I thought of Buñuel for another reason. In his Phantom of Liberty a character sits sullenly in his elegant and impeccably tidy Paris flat, and says ‘J’en ai marre de la symétrie’ – ‘I’ve had it with symmetry.’ Branagh’s Poirot would never say this, but he does confess that his passion for neatness ‘makes most of life unbearable’. The trick is that it also allows him to spot disorder where no one else would see it, and this is what makes him a great detective. This theme is very well treated in the film, at first comically and then with a mild but genuine pathos.

When we first see Poirot he is having breakfast in Istanbul, and refusing to eat a pair of boiled eggs because they are not exactly the same size. He disapproves of the chickens who are so sloppy about their product. When he leaves the hotel he steps into a pile of what I take to be camel shit. He pauses, then restores symmetry by deliberately stepping in the same shit with his other foot. One of his last requests in the movie is that a soldier who has brought him a message should straighten his tie.

There are more important issues in the film than Poirot’s obsession, but it is precisely this obsession that is troubled and foiled at the end of the film. A man has been killed. There is a plausible but erroneous solution to the crime and a totally implausible correct one. Both solutions can be displayed in detail, and Poirot unfolds with them all his un-English deductive genius. They make sense, cause and effect are clarified, there are no logical loose ends. This is how classic mysteries are supposed to wind up. But in this case the mystery rests on and bequeaths to the players a horrible human mess, as revenge stories often do. Poirot can’t put his other foot in this shit, and even if he could, it wouldn’t help. His response is to hope for more symmetry in his next case, a better occasion for the use of his obsessive talent.

Branagh’s film has an important ancestor in mind, and has borrowed an important principle from it. This is Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express from 1974, and the principle is to fill the train with stars, who come trailing both their previous film roles and their gossip-column lives. They are more interesting than the plot and this is generally true of Branagh’s film too. Here Michelle Pfeiffer gives an amazing performance as Lauren Bacall rather than the character Christie dreamed of. Penelope Cruz becomes an intriguing variant on Ingrid Bergman, who was already not only playing against type but playing with type. She got an Oscar for failing to pretend to be a diffident, dim-witted Swedish woman full of guilt and religious zeal. The most intriguing comparison perhaps is between Richard Widmark in 1974 and Johnny Depp in 2017 as the evil mobster around whom events revolve. Both are terrific in the part but Widmark’s style seems like the real thing because it is so close to many old movies; and Depp’s style seems allusive because those movies are so old.

The endings of the films are the same as far as the storyline goes but they could hardly be more different in mood. In the Lumet version the characters toast each other with champagne, the train is released from a snowdrift (not a derailment as in the later film) and chugs off through the mountains to the sound of music that recalls The Sound of Music. Poirot says he needs to struggle with his conscience – because so much is not going to be said to the police – but he has so far shown no sign of having any such thing, unless unrelieved grumpiness is a mark of moral superiority. Symmetry? Who needs symmetry? What we want is closure.