Just released in the cinemas, this new adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel seems to be dividing critics and viewers. In fact, I have now been to see it twice – the first time with a friend who is a big fan of the book and really liked it, especially for its passionate depiction of the detective. I then saw it again with a different group of friends, all of whom found it disappointing and cold. What did I think and why the divergence of opinions? Well, here’s what I think really happened …
The best known screen adaption of the book is the star-studded version from 1974 starring Albert Finney, who for my money gives a rather absurd and certainly very mannered performance in the role. But the production values are wonderful, the music charming and the cast incredibly starry (Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, Lauren Bacall, etc al). It was a huge hit in its day and sparked a whole new interest in Christie’s work as movie fodder. It has since been adapted several more times, once in an updated version with Alfred Molina from 2001 that nobody likes (me neither) and a period version with David Suchet. I didn’t like this one much either as I found the later episodes of his Poirot series on the whole much too somber and cheerless, especially when compared with the earlier years of the show.
The new film is set in 1934 and we begin in Jerusalem as Poirot is concluding a case there – this sets him up as an ultra-fastidious but humorous man, and one with an extraordinary moustache. Most of my friends were really worried about the bushy ornament on Branagh’s upper lip, but it is a thing of great beauty and you get used to it right away.
Poirot is then called on to another case and forced on to the celebrated train. This is introduced via a gigantic tracking shot in which we not only meet the vehicle itself but also all the passengers. It is a superb piece of bravura filmmaking, topped by a really funny exchange when Poirot has to meet his roommate.
At this point, you know that a character will be killed (‘Ratchett’ who is played here in very nasty mode by Johnny Depp) and the train blocked (atop a bridge after an avalanche via some pretty imaginative CGI); and Poirot, who desperately wants a rest, must in fact be an investigator again.
Most of us know the story and probably the solution to the the mystery too – so really, what we want to know is the treatment it receives. To cut to the chase, I saw this film twice, in a 70mm presentations in London, and thought it worked extremely well. The plot has been pared down to the bone so the narrative can be a bit choppy, it is true. But all the actors get their moment to shine (Michelle Pfeiffer is great, especially at the end, and I loved the exchange in German with Olivia Colman’s character) though it is Branagh who dominated throughout. With his magnificent moustaches and almost as marvellous silver-tipped cane, he is absolutely mesmerising as Poirot. By turns charmingly human when giggling at Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ or at his delight at finding two perfectly sized hardboiled eggs for breakfast, he is also a man torn about his mission in life and is just as convincing as a passionate and moral man who must confront all that he holds dear when he discovers the true nature of the crime. There are also references to his having a lost love that maybe don’t work so well, but they are restricted to a couple of brief solitary moments and are no big deal.
I’m sorry some of my friends didn’t go for it – I think they either had too strong a recollection of the 1974 movie, which is fun but utterly lacking in depth and human emotion; or didn’t go for some of the shortcuts imposed to keep the film under two hours and found Branagh’s trademark pacing, which does tend to be a little ‘off’ compared with most standard big budget productions (but it’s one of the things I like about his work). I understand that, but thought this version looked great (it was shot in 70mm), had a great cast (Daisy Ridley is also very good here) and managed to bring a very well-known story well and truly back to life with some subtle tweaks to reference the changes in society and the coming war in Europe that help make it work better for contemporary audiences without betraying the source.
Branagh deserves huge kudos in my view – his handling of the actors is as ever superb and his use of long takes and slightly unconventional approach to pacing (which some of my friends found irksome) give it a pleasingly different feel from the standard Hollywood product (it was in any case shot in the UK with some location shooting in Malta). And the closing credits have a song (by Patrick Doyle) sung by Michelle Pfeiffer too!
Me? I loved it and I hope you will too.