Murder on the Orient Express film review ****

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Murder on the Orient Express, 27th November 2017

Stage or film, acting, managing, directing or producing, Sir Kenneth Branagh always makes sure he is right at the centre of things. Always has done. I bet he even pops out to Starbucks when it is his turn to get the lattes in. He probably even organises the on-set Secret Santa. And why not. He is bloody good at what he does and he can get things done. I confess not everything he does is entertainment gold but you can’t argue with his record. In his last eponymous season at the Garrick, (move over Davey boy), in 2015 his Leontes was immense and his physical comedy in The Painkiller belied his 55 years. And you can take your pick of his proselytising Shakespeare leads, stage or screen, (we could do with a real life version his Henry V right now I reckon). The man loves Shakespeare so as far as I am concerned he can do no wrong. The thing is that Sir Ken is an almighty show-off, which, let’s face it, is no bad thing for an actor to be.

So why shouldn’t he have some fun with Agatha C’s arguably most ingenious whodunnit. Yes it has been done to death (tee, hee), and we all know how it ends, but who cares when it is this much fun. With a couple of exceptions, (Johnny Depp, quelle surprise, as pantomime villain, and, to a lesser extent, Michelle Pfeiffer, as a cougarish, femme fatale), the stellar cast he has assembled doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to start chewing the scenery, but it is good to have them along for the ride. And Branagh himself is so mannered as Poirot, complete with risible accent, ludicrous moustache, immaculate suit and, especially at the end, bouts of preposterous philosophising, that it makes up for the under-utilisation elsewhere. Penelope Cruz gets to do buttoned up, doom laden Catholic, (Spanish obviously not the character’s original Swedish though that might have been a fun accent), William Dafoe, a BOGOF routine, with a sinister, racist Austrian before reverting to type, Judi Dench a haughty, mittel-European grunt, Derek Jacobi an Ealing-style, gor-blimey butler and Daisy Ridley an incredulous toff. The talents of, in particular, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo and Olivia Colman get less of an airing, which is a shame, but blame AC for serving up her Last Supper of suspects (a motif that is mined by KB).

Sir Ken takes a similarly selfish approach to his directorial duties coming over all Orson Welles and Wes Anderson, with his mix of angles and shots, and his exquisite set and costume staging for the “action”. He shoves in a prologue in Cairo which I adored. to show just how clever Poirot is, like a vintage OCD Belgian Bond. The camera drones get a good workout and if you like trains, which I do, you are in for a treat. It might distract a bit from the “suspense” but when you know the outcome so what? It is shot on handsome 65mm which adds to the old skool feel. 

It seems once again that Sir Ken’s confidence, which rubs off on everyone around him, has paid off. Despite the muted critical response the box office receipts are rolling in to add to the unsubtle product placement. So we will be getting a Death on the Nile, and I predict, some time ahead of Christmas 2021, an And Then There Were None. Agents of the thespian great and good, get on the phone to Sir Ken now.

Dunkirk film review ****

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Dunkirk, 26th July 2017

Regular readers of this blog (soon to be counted on the fingers of more than one hand I confidently predict) will have worked out that I am not a committed film buff, preferring the theatre, art exhibitions and, within limits, classical music concerts. And I am a bit random in what I do end up seeing at the cinema, though with a bias to the kind of foreign language efforts that the Guardian approves of.

Dunkirk though was going to be an obligatory view however largely for the subject. As I observed in my review of the rather pedestrian Churchill (the film not the bloke – see here Churchill film review **) the mythology of this history is deep-rooted. What I didn’t do though was pay much attention to director. cast or the much vaunted production choices which underpin Dunkirk the film. So the absence of CGI, the focus on character as metaphor, the absence of blood and guts, the intersection of time periods, in fact the whole Sunday morning 1950s matinee quality which pervaded the whole affair was a welcome surprise.

Nothing wrong with using technology to create visual drama and spectacle for the cinema audience but, in my experience, it can mean plot. character and meaning can take a subsidiary role to the visual extravaganza. Not here. You are not going to be surprised by the depth of psychological introspection revealed in the dialogue nor should you expect a devastating indictment of the politics that lie behind what was a humiliation for the Allied forces. This is a straightforward telling of the “story” but smartly avoids moralising or mythologising precisely because of what is not there. Instead it is an engrossing impression, complete with banging score and some cracking camerawork, of a sequence of events. Branagh does a Branagh, Rylance does a Rylance, Hardy does a Hardy and the somewhat lesser known cast members (all blokes) all fall into line (including that Tom Glynn-Carney who shines in The Ferryman on the stage).

I couldn’t tell you if director Christopher Nolan’s non-linear storytelling is the mark of an auteur or just a way to cut down editing costs but it is effective for me. Too much mainstream cinema is boring for me because it is linear and predictable so this was a welcome diversion.

Anyway all I up I wandered in. sat down, got caught up in the film and the people in it, came out and broadly forgot about it. That’s enough for me and way more than I normally get when I inadvisedly see a “blockbuster” film.