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‘Murder on the Orient Express’ film review: A high-speed version of Agatha Christie’s famous novel

Kenneth Branagh turns out an enjoyable performance as Hercule Poirot, even though his movie lacks a sure sense of suspense and dread.

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express moves decisively away from its literary source as well as Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed film adaptation. Agatha Christie’s immensely popular Murder on the Orient Express is an audaciously plotted murder mystery that takes place on board the train. A venal businessman named Ratchett has been stabbed to death in his sleep, and everybody on the coach is suspect, from his secretary and valet to the British colonel and his lover. Unfortunately for the murderer, Hercule Poirot, the greatest detective ever born, is also a passenger.

Christie’s intricate plotting and pithily observed ensemble of characters were faithfully transported onto the screen by Lumet in 1974. Lumet’s version replicated much of the novel’s dialogue and plot twists. Albert Finney played Poirot, the Belgian with the pointy moustache, distinctive mannerisms and the tendency to lapse into caricature in his enthusiasm to hunt down wrongdoers.

Branagh’s movie is a pared-down, speeded-up version of the novel. That is both good and bad. The director also stars as Poirot, delivering a witty and charming performance as the detective who matches Sherlock Holmes in his unerring ability to distil the truth from seemingly random events and clues. The lengthy and suspenseful interrogations that provide Poirot vital clues to the murder have been trimmed, at the cost of losing the sure sense of anticipation that Christie creates on her pages and Lumet reproduces in his movie. The characters zip by rather than linger, and many of Poirot’s deductions are presented as brilliant guesswork rather than the result of those famed grey cells working overtime to crack a seemingly unsolvable killing.

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Murder on the Orient Express (2017).

Branagh’s version is altogether more light-hearted and fleet, clocking in at a crisp 114 minutes. Much of the running time is devoted to depicting his interpretation of Poirot, whose obsession with perfection and balance is revealed in the opening sequence set in Jerusalem. As Poirot boards the Orient Express, the star-studded cast floats into view, including Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley and Johnny Depp as the loathsome Ratchett. The cast has been well chosen but is severely underutilised. The brightest star in the galaxy remains Branagh, who exercises his privilege as director to the fullest.

One of the welcome updates in Michael Green’s screenplay is in the matter of race. Christie’s very British observations on the provenance of her characters have been replaced by a multiracial cast that better reflects the diversity of moviegoing audiences. Arbuthnot, for instance, isn’t an Army colonel any more but a black American doctor (Leslie Odom Jr) whose relationship with the white Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) has greater layers than the pairing in the novel.

The biggest change is in the characterisation of Poirot, who is more suave and attractive than in previous avatars. The movie centres around Branagh’s performance rather than Poirot’s brilliance, and benefits from the veteran actor’s complete investment in his character. The moustache is more luxuriant than before; the Belgian accent is put to good use; the complete lack of self-deprecation is played with a judicious mix of humour and respect.

However, Branagh’s consummate performance fails to even out the sheer lack of suspense and the poignancy of the reason for Ratchett’s death. The new movie has been handsomely shot and produced, but the raw punch produced by Christie in her extended climax is missing.

The movie seems to be in a great rush towards the sequel that is suggested at the end – a forthcoming adaptation of Christie’s Death on the Nile. Branagh makes for a fine Poirot, and perhaps the next time, he will settle for a leisurely cruise rather than an express tour.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.