Directed by Kenneth Branagh (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
"Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis...it’s terrible when [society] makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world." -Patty Jenkins
In that interview, Jenkins is talking about her film Wonder Woman, released earlier this year, but I thought of it immediately once again as the credits rolled for this film, feeling as though I were immersed in an almost effortlessly warm, happy glow. What the world needs now is sincerity. We must banish the idea that a film that delights in both its humor and its humanity with a loving, unfeigned abandon is not as important as other, graver arts. What we need now is hope. What we need now is a great detective who not only sees the humanity in most everything but delights in life's tiny intricacies and constantly demands better of his world. This is the time for Poirot. This is the time for a film as earnestly beautiful, lovingly made, and morally cathartic as this one.
I've been an admirer of Kenneth Branagh's films for quite awhile, especially his Shakesperean efforts (his Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing are my two favorite Shakespeare adaptations ever put to film, respectively), and he brings a similar attention to emotion and detail in his adaptation of what is perhaps Agatha Christie's most popular mystery novel, from a career of wildly popular mystery novels featuring an eccentric detective named Hercule Poirot. Like Sherlock Holmes, Poirot is anal-retentive and insular, prim and meticulous, but unlike Holmes, his heart is warm, his humanity ever-present beneath his immaculate veneer. Branagh brings him all the life and vivacity that jumps so readily from Christie's page, his blue eyes sparkling beneath a positively uproarious mustache. Like all humanity, Poirot has his flaws - he's vain, he's indulgent, and he's an utter perfectionist to a fault, demanding his eggs be perfectly aligned and ties straightened to his liking and on his whim. While he searches for "the crack" in this mystery, we see a few cracks of his own as well. It's important that Poirot is himself human, though his powers of deduction may seem superhuman - and Branagh tows the delicate line between foible and "the little grey cells" Poirot himself mentions so often. How does Branagh manage to make Poirot's French accent sound so pleasing? I don't fucking know, but listening to his voice in this film was like drinking a cup of hot mulled cider to me, or eating a really good piece of chocolate. I wanted Poirot to tell me about all his favorite cakes for an hour. Just being around him was a delight to me.
Branagh would be something special alone, but the ensemble of delights he's assembled in this cast is truly special. The standouts to me were Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot, a black physician in a time when black doctors were all but unheard of in the European world, the mesmerizing royal couple in Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), and the utterly captivating Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, who as she ages becomes more striking and regal than ever, but the ensemble is such an essential part of this story, so important to it carrying itself to the climax, and Branagh seems to have understood this utterly, demanding the best (Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi). There are few things in this world I love more than a group of mysterious strangers thrown together in an isolated setting with a murder on their hands, and this movie made me long for a chilly evening, the lights glowing low, a satisfying dinner in my belly and a glass of wine in my hand, to rewatch it. This is what I call a "winter movie," one to watch and rewatch from a cozy pile of blankets while endless, huge flakes of snow fall outside your window. There are some telltale signs that almost immediately begin to creep up in me when I'm watching something I'm really enjoying - one of them is the urge to revisit a scene almost as soon as it's ended (a feeling I had again and again during this film), and another is a desire to own something about the making of the film. On my way home last night, I anxiously searched for a sign that some kind of coffee table book is going to be made about this movie, but alas, I could find none. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos' wide lens, creating a panoramic view of the Orient Express traveling through snow-capped mountains and pink evening skies, reminded me of the pure joy I used to have watching films as a child, when everything was new, every cinematic experience an adventure. Likewise, he takes an equally special care to examine the expressions of the many characters here, giving them each carefully measured moments to tell their individual stories, and to acquaint us intimately with the beautiful art-deco interior of the train. I particularly loved the small fanning lamps at the dining car tables, and Poirot's tiny copy of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. There's a shot near the end that made me go "ahhhhhh" - when Poirot approaches the seated passengers of the Orient Express in the tunnel entrance, the camera focused on his loaded, measured advance, the train that functions as another important player in this tale silhouetted behind him, and the vast expanse of sky behind it. It's one of my favorite shots from any film this year.
In many ways this is the quintessential Hercule Poirot story - despite all his mighty powers of deduction, his wistful desire to "see the world as it should be," he must admit that in the end, life holds no such neat epilogue. "God is always busy," he says to Penélope Cruz's Pilar Estravados, before he himself knows how true his words are. In the absence of the gods, we must find our own way to live as best we can. The gray morality of Christie's final reveal never seems to lose its punch for me, and Branagh handles it here with grace, as well as several moments of racial tension that I felt added to the realism of the story without ever feeling needlessly voyeuristic, or over-simplified. Unlike Sofia Coppola's erasure of the black experience in The Beguiled, Branagh seems to understand here that to erase the experiences of marginalized people, to pretend they never happened at all, is far more of an insult than to confront the realities of colonialism and slavery within the fabric of a narrative. Those scenes are orchestrated with the right balance of delicacy and nuance.
There are moments where Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green give the narrative a little bit of oomph for a modern audience (the chase between Poirot and Josh Gad's MacQueen on the bridge's inner bracing, for instance), and I was okay with those bits. The 1974 film with Sidney Lumet lacks the visual flair and dramatic tension of this experience, and I prefer Branagh's film in almost every way. In a world where a film with a spirit as sincere as this one will almost certainly be derided by some, I had one of the most genuinely enjoyable experiences of my movie-going year. Patrick Doyle's score hits all the right notes, harnessing the dramatic flair of the story's unforgettable protagonist, the tragedy of its reveal, and the gleeful espionage of its mystery. As the end hints that Poirot is off to aid in the solving of another crime in Egypt (an obvious, gleeful nod to Death on the Nile, I hope enough people embrace this utterly enjoyable film so we can visit Branagh's Poirot again. A movie as unpretentious as this one was a breath of fresh winter air to my heart and soul. I can't wait to watch it again.