TEN REFLECTIONS ON KENNETH BRANAGH’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

This entry was posted on January 9th, 2018

By Victor Bruno

I 

There is no reason whatsoever for Branagh’s option to shoot Murder on the Orient Express (2017) in 70mm. I wish I could find some, but, truth be told, I cannot. Nor he had any when he opted to shoot Hamlet (1996) in that format. But, interestingly, a kind of pattern was established: If Branagh is shooting a film that is set in a snow-bound environment and if this film is set mostly in interiors, then he will film it it in 70mm. 

II 

In recent years we have seen a rising of the 70mm. The Master (2012), The Hateful Eight (2015), Dunkirk (2017) and now this Murder, all of these films were shot in 70mm. This is establishes a kind of duel between the recording device and the film itself. Dunkirk, for instance, has this “gritty” quality—it has the intention to capture a “heightened” sense of reality, of red-blood drama, mixed with the confusion of the three-parted narrative (again exposing Christopher Nolan’s inability to act as the narrator of a piece of fiction). But oddly enough, it spins the original intention of the 70mm technology on its head. While it is true that the 70mm was created to be a high-definition medium, its reality is a plastic one—similar to the Technicolor technology. It would be very odd, I wonder, to use the three-strip Technicolor film (with its wide range of color) to convey realistic colors. Hitchcock, for instance, even in the twilight of his career he still thought that the problem of color on film had not been solved.1 Truly, it leads us to a polemical issue, that is of the pretense that cinema has any right to be “realistic” or to convey “realism” 100% of the time. The same Hitchcock that complains about the bright orange of the sunset of Rope (1948) is the same Hitchcock that uses the idyllic Autumnal colors of the Vermont woods to contrast with the bleak murder of The Trouble with Harry (1955). By the same token, to use 70mm to convey realism is equally strange. One could argue that Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is, in a certain manner, “realistic,” since it depicts the struggle of a man when thrown in the harshness of nature. But is anything in T. E. Lawrence’s personal story “realistic”? What is “realistic” in the story of a man who wants to be a god? Lawrence’s story is like one of a modern Icarus—a man who flies too close to the Sun and burns himself by his pretense. Icarus’ wings is his dream of a unified Arabia and when he hears “Goodbye Dolly” the glue of his wings finally melts. Lawrence of Arabia is a symbolic film—certainly not a realistic one. It is the analogical visualization lies deep in the soul of man. Lean uses the 70mm in order to convey Lawrence’s hallucinatory folly; it is not his aim to heighten the reality of the situation. Therefore he continues an experiment that was first tried by John Ford’s use of VistaVision in The Searchers (1956).2 We see a similar correlation in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), which is partially a modern retelling of Abraham and Sarah’s story when they flight to Egypt (Genesis 12). But I’m drifting away. 

III 

The bulky nature of the 70mm camera gives the film a plastered quality that is becoming of its Interbellum setting. The movie is set in 1934—just a few years shy of the II World War and some of the class relationships depicted in the movie are soon to disappear, so we can say that everything displayed in the movie is fake. And since Branagh’s camera choice is a mere visual décor, perfectly replaceable, it fits well in this make-believe world. We are trapped on this train, and, not unlike the make-believe world of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), we have here this cosmion impregnated by a soon-to-vanish Occidental ethos.

But that is only the film. We the spectators are in Anno Domini 2017, so the movie has to pay (and pays) some genuflections to today’s gods. In order to present a more “diverse” set of characters, the cast is open to a kind of affirmative action. The Christian Greta Ohlsson morphed into Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), a Latin Christian. The Italian Antonio Foscarelli becomes Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Cuban-American, so the picture manages to introduce, ever so slightly, the theme of Latin immigration in America and how modern-day America might profit from it, despite of the film’s European setting. Finally, the novel’s Dr. Constantine and Col. Arbuthnot merge into one black Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), so the film can talk about ethnic prejudice and inter-racial relationships, since the character is the romantic interest of Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), who is white.3 In this manner, what we see is not the adaptation of a 1934 novel with all the mistakes and prejudices of the era, but a present-day projection of what the world of 1934 should be. Nevertheless, I am dealing with the movie, and not with the novel, and this wishful projection of contemporary longings and anxieties fits well to the make-believe identity of the picture. 

IV

At any rate, the dichotomy of what is and what should be is at the very core of the movie and of the protagonist, Hecule Poirot, who repeatedly complains about the imbalance of the world. This reminds me of the original source of this film, which is a detective story. Recently, the venerable University Bookman published a review by Prof. Ashlee Cowles on the “whodunit” genre in the works of novelist Sally Wright.4 Likewise, Murder on the Orient Express, both the novel and the film, also falls into the whodunit category, which the author as a kind of literature that fights “against nihilism, relativism, and the despair that is the result of both. . . . [The] detective story [is] set in a universe of order, of heroes and villains, of moral rights and moral wrongs. In other words, a universe worth living in.”5 This brings a problem to the film: Moral absolutes are not palatable to modern sensibilities. The world—so we think today—is not composed of either black and white, but of shades of gray. This is stands in stark contrast to the basis of the detective story. Hence, the film faces a problem, How to make Murder on the Orient Express a relativist detective story? Again, to genuflect before the modern gods, Branagh has to make another twist on Christie’s novel. Instead of acknowledging that the murder of a child’s murderer—in the landscape of the moral imagination—weighs less than the murder of said child, Branagh has redress the role of Hercule Poirot.

Typologically speaking, the detective of whodunits has an avenging power. He the corrector of the imbalance of the world. To use a phrase uttered by Branagh in Murder, “there is right and there is wrong.” This is why in the novel Poirot has no moral crisis and concede to lie to the Yugoslavian police. In Branagh’s version, in order to avoid the slightest suspect that popular vendetta is better than institutionalized justice, we see Poirot flinching about what is right. One could argue that this is the Shakespeare in Branagh, since it allows some latitude that permit him to perform at least two monologues. We can stretch the argument when we consider that Hamlet, in the play that bear his name, also stalls before setting out to kill his uncle Claudius (who is a manslaughter).

But Hamlet kills his uncle nevertheless. On the other hand, Branagh’s Poirot is extremely ambivalent toward his attitude (something graphically depicted in the last scene: Poirot walks on the opposite direction of the leaving train). This is enough to show that the film actually thinks that the murderous plot will cast a long black shadow on those people’s life, as if—as the film itself shows—the murder of an innocent child were not enough tragedy.

The film then depicts the modern philosophical trend of subjectivism. Saddled in furious relativism, the film gives up the “avenging angel” characterization and presents us this character that initially ranges, using Northrop Frye’s hero characterization, from the superior degree of the high mimetic mode (superior to the other characters, but not to his environment) to low mimetic mode (equal to the other characters and environment).6 During the film, Poirot disintegrates. But why? To the modern mind, the attitude he has during the opening of the film—that serious, precise, meticulous Continental European man—is the epitome of the early 20th-century Positivist character. As the film progresses and Poirot is forced to acknowledge that there are no moral absolutes, he panics and, during his first soliloquy, concedes: “I am lost.” Now he is one of us, the film’s transition to the low mimetic mode is finished, a transition visually depicted by an overhead crane shot on the outside of the train that booms down to the bottomless pit bellow the snow-struck vehicle. 

V

I find remarkable that Branagh is managing to land in the director’s chair of big Hollywood films. If anyone were paying attention to his work, he would have noticed that he has no affinity with the image, nor with the actor. His heart lies upon the dialogue, or, rather, upon exposition—of plot or emotion. Thus, I find every comparison between him and Laurence Olivier totally unfitting. There are no similarities between the two beside that they are Shakespeare-trained actors and directors. Olivier, to my mind, was a true “actor’s director,” but one who had a fine ability to notice that Shakespeare alone cannot survive the image-based medium of cinema. Branagh—on the other hand—insists that we must endure four hours of a Hamlet set on a blinding white marble castle surrounded by snow. Branagh is the perfect opposite of Olivier.

VI

However, as I pointed in elsewhere, the Branaghian cinema—if such exists—is marked by a gracious prudence that is becoming of a film like Murder. In Cinderella, he dealt with a fairy-tale world, and this world does not exist except in our dreams and in the imaginative people. The fairy-tale world—not unlike the detective world mentioned above—is a make-believe world, a world of correctness and balance and where the slightest injustice will meet its comeuppance in transcendent fashion (that is, the fairy-tale is a world of perfect natural justice). This left Branagh with a great degree of latitude to expose his classical sensibilities and move his camera in this perfectly unreal world with no caveats. The same happens in Murder: the fact that grosso modo the reality of the detective story is underlined with ius naturalis allows him to fly in his antiquated sensibilities (even though the aforementioned genuflections to today’s gods jeopardize much of the potential success that this film would have).

VII

One needs courage to use wide lenses. Branagh does not have it. He reserves those either to establishing shots or to certain occasional scenes where he wants to emphasize the offbeat character of Poirot. Normally, in these cases Branagh will frame in Dutch angle, an odd resource first presented—if my memory serves me well—in Thor (2011), although he had first flirted with kitsch aesthetics in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (his exercise in operatic filmmaking). Nevertheless, beginning in Cinderella, the Irish director has tried to employ a subtler style—and subtler styles usually demand (or seem to demand) long lenses. Get a non-visual director a long lens and he will never use any other.

VIII

Paradoxical situations of the long lens. Consider the tracking shot showing Poirot first entering in the Orient Express. It lasts for two, two and a half minutes and makes us submerge in this clockwork world of precise manners and eccentric characters. But we see it from a distance, since Branagh uses a normal-sized lens (I believe he went with a 50mm, but I am not sure). We are detached from that world. The camera, meaningfully, frames the situation from the outside of the train, meaning we cannot actually enter in that world, except for the veil of fakery I mentioned earlier.

IX

I think that in two or three films’ time we will see an image-friendly Branagh. Just consider the great scene where Poirot and Bouc (Tom Bateman) discover Hatchett’s (Johnny Depp) body. We are in an overhead shot that will not reveal the massacred body. It reminded me of that beautiful scene in Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982), when Keys (Paul Winfield) finds the destroyed body of a black man in a church. Fuller never reveals the dead body, but we can only infer that it is in horrible shape. In similar manner, Branagh delays the exposition of the body. But later he gives up on the strategy—thus destroying the beautiful cinematic architecture he was creating—when, thinking he is doing a Hitchcockian rendition of an investigative scene, Bouc and Poirot discuss the circumstances of the killing while the camera tracks into the murdered body of Hatchett until the two characters are out of frame. The question is: If Branagh was not only going to show the dead body but also make us see the very stab marks, why did he delayed the exposition?

X

CGI is the new Vaseline on the lens. And just as the Vaseline-heavy Murder on the Orient Express of the ’70s was a film for its time, so is the new Murder. But would I see Branagh’s Murder again? Yes. There is something about the perennial truth that creeps out from the plastered modern patronizing mask and of Branagh’s prudent and innocence method that keeps me calling back to it and to his cinema as a whole.

1 See his discussion on color with François Truffaut in Hithcock, tr. Helen G. Scott, rev. ed., New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985, pp. 181–3, and Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s essay “Dreyer on Color Film,” in Jan Wahl, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, pp. 119–23, on this subject. Apropos, it reminds me that a “non-realistic” filmmaker, Cecil B. DeMille was an early adopter of the color technology. Whereas color kills the paradoxically “realistic” quality of the black and white, it heightens the fantastic and dream-like fantasy that is proper of cinema.

2 Conversely, I attribute part of Ryan’s Daughter’s failure exctly to the elephantine use of the 70mm film that, except in some scenes (especially during Christopher Jones and Sarah Milles’ sex scene) fits what seems to be Lean’s original intention.

3 It is amusing to see that a film that is so proud of the fact that it has an ethnically “diverse” falling on a tu quoque. In the film, Dr. Arbuthnot declares that he had the honor to be the only black allowed in his Medicine class at his university upon his graduation. This is the film’s patronizing denounce of the institutionalized racism of old. In 2017, as the film’s proud assertion of its diversity (as if it were doing Agatha Christie’s a kind favor by “correcting” her supposed “unintentional racism”), Leslie Odom, Jr. is the only black man allowed among the film’s protagonists.

4 Ashlee Cowles, “The Moral Imagination in the Mystery Novels of Sally Wright,” The University Bookman, Oct. 29, 2017, http://www.kirkcenter.org/bookman/article/shining-a-light-on-dark-deeds.

5 Ibid.

6 See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, new ed., Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 33–4.