VILLAIN in a steam train: Johnny Depp plays the wicked Mr Ratchett. Photograph courtesy http://www.variety.com
THERE’S SOMETHING IRREVOCABLY escapist in an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Not for moral reasons, but for the sleight of hand, the twist in the tale and the characters that populate her stories. This remake of the 1974 classic film, featuring a host of enormous names, from Sean Connery to Ingrid Bergman, with David Suchet in the role of the inimitable Hercules Poirot, the greatest detective in the world, at the right place, at the right time, is delightful. It’s not without its flaws, but it is eye candy in the most lovely of ways.
Put a bunch of prominent and distinctive strangers together on a train en route to Istanbul from Jerusalem, with all its Art Deco detail and wood panelling. Pop off one of them, in a sufficiently violent way. And then derail the train, thus trapping all of them, including the killer, whoever he or she may be, in a context where all must be revealed. And there you have the plot, which grows with abandon in curious directions.
But it’s not for the plot that you watch and are seduced by a yarn of this nature. It’s for the characters. Christie’s writing genius was more about her ability to envelop a character in the round, with all his or her idiosyncrasies and hilarious quirks, with all his or her vulnerabilities and hard core beliefs. And she does this in a couple of sentences, a throwaway line or two.
The filmed version of this pays critical attention to detail, in terms of poise and costume, gesture and mien of each of the characters. And while at times you feel that these are constructed and highly polished simulacra rather than characters, as such, each is completely delicious. The work is replete with an unabashed colonialist fascination with Israel – it’s set in 1934 – and a whole range of racist and sexist barbs which need to be understood in the context of the time, but it’s lively and fine entertainment.
To its disservice, however, several of the cast members, including Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs Hubbard and Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham are seemingly far too young for the roles they embrace. Is it a flaw of make-up and directed performance? Are they really too young? This is a moot point, but as the plot unfolds, and all is revealed, there are generational connections between the cast and these two stick out as anomalies.
Other silly events such as a stabbing which is so lacking in credulity, it is laughable, pepper this work, but they’re events in which all can be forgiven. This rip-roaring and fabulous mystery and its resolution, will cast you in beautiful geographies and exciting climes. The work is generously sprinkled with magnificent cameos which make it happen – from Judi Dench to Johnny Depp, with a soupçon of Penélope Cruz and Derek Jacobi, this is a treat. Kenneth Branagh ably balances his role as Poirot, director and one of the producers of this film, but it does make you wonder what kind of a collaborator he may be in a project of this nature.
And finally a word must be added for Poirot’s moustache which is the main character in many stills. It’s so fabulous, it deserves a credit all of its own.
Murder on the Orient Express is directed by Kenneth Branagh and performed by a cast headed by Ziad Abaza, David Annen, Andy Apollo, Tom Bateman, Nari Blair-Mangat, Todd Boyce, Lucy Boynton, Luke Brady, Kenneth Branagh, Darryl Clark, Richard Clifford, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Phil Dunster, Paapa Essiedu, Hadley Fraser, Josh Gad, Adam Garcia, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Tom Hanson, Yasmin Harrison, Matthew Hawksley, Gerard Horan, Derek Jacobi, Pip Jordan, Ansu Kabia, Hayat Kamille, Marwan Kenzari, Joshua Lacey, Crispin Letts, Elliot Levey, Joseph Long, Anoushka Lucas, Rami Nasr, Asan N’Jie, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sergei Polunin, Chris Porter, Miranda Raison, Jack Riddiford, Daisy Ridley, Michael Rouse, Sid Sagar, Irfan Shamji, Harry Lister Smith, Kate Tydman, Kathryn Wilder, Miltos Yerolemou and Yassine Zeroual. It is written by Michael Green based on the eponymous book by Agatha Christie. Produced by Kenneth Branagh, Mark Gordon, Judy Hoffland, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer and Ridley Scott, it features creative input by Patrick Doyle (music), Haris Zambarioukos (cinematography), Mick Audsley (editing), Lucy Bevan (casting), Jim Clay (production design), Rebecca Alleway (set) and Alexandra Byrne (costumes). Release date: November 24 2017.
WOMAN at a casement: Alicia Vikander is the inscrutable, beautiful Sophia Sandvoort. Photograph courtesy imdb.com
IT’S MID 17TH century Amsterdam and the money making pastime of predicting the rarity of a tulip from its bulb is all the rage. Picture the hustle and bustle and noise of a 20th century stock exchange, or a nineteenth century auction, toss in a bit of Victorian bawdry and market banter, and you’ve got the picture. It’s rough and wild and replete with glorious surprises, which enfolds the rich and controlled presence of the church into its complexity. Against this backdrop, a wealthy spice merchant buys a beautiful young orphan from the nunnery to be his wife, and there follows a beautiful tale of sacrifice and disappointment, love and fear, chance and tulips that will make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a painting by Dutch master Jan Vermeer.
The film is beautifully crafted with a great sense of research and intelligence. It offers the texture of Dutch 16th century life that doesn’t seem to miss a beat in its reflections – and there’s everything there, from the propensity of Dutch artists to work on wood, to a visual comment on the Jewish and black communities of the city at the time. There’s an understanding of class hierarchy and costume rules, as well as of the ignorance of men in matters of gynaecology. And there’s a tiny performance by veteran Judi Dench as the authoritative abbess, pipe in hand, that pulls it all together with wit and wisdom.
It’s a rich and heady tale that presents the older gentleman – the king of peppercorns – who knows a thing or six about what makes a good nutmeg, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) as the ultimate hero: the widower who in spite of great hurt sees an understanding of truth and is able to reflect generously on the value of wealth in a way that seems to contradict his station or stereotypes of his gender.
Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is heartbreakingly young and her astonishing beauty embraces a deep vulnerability. The challenge of being wife to a man at least forty years older, one who wants an heir is tough, and Sophia remains fairly inscrutable even in bed with him. Enter the young artist, Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), on a portrait commission and all libidinal abandon is tossed to the wind.
While the love scenes are deeply beautiful, in certain respects, adherence to the time frame is lost and in the midst of rapture and blind passion, the young couple – Sophia and van Loos – loosen the bounds of the period and seem like a modern couple. Similarly, the finished paintings feel far too modern in style for the period in question, which was curtailed by stylistic convention, even though so much of it is drenched in the kind of liquid light you can see in paintings by Vermeer, from the same kind of period.
Having said that, the complexity of the story which sees the underbelly of the tulip prediction business infiltrating through it, involves chance and misunderstanding, a misleading pregnancy and a plan destined to fail. Fail it does, but you’re overwhelmed and surprised by how and why. It’s a rich and beautiful film that might make you think of Alexandre Dumas’s fabulous tale of a black tulip, as you learn about the nature and ethos of betting, acquiring and letting go.
Tulip Fever is directed by Justin Chadwick and is performed by a cast featuring Keith Ackerman, Laura Allen, Sebastian Armesto, Cressida Bonas, Cornelius Booth, Amy Brogan, Greta Brogan, Jody Brogan, Daisy Chadwick, Conner Chapman, Declan Cooke, Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Judi Dench, James Dryden, Ian Drysdale, Jane Edwardes, Patsy Ferran, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Geary, Alexandra Gilbreath, B Glanville, Holliday Grainger, David Harewood, Anastasia Hille, Douglas Hodge, Tom Hollander, James Inkling, Alex Lowe, Daisy Lowe, Brendan McCoy, Kevin McKidd, Simon Meacock, Tom Meredith, Deborah Moggach, Matthew Morrison, Michael Nardone, Jack O’Connell, Megan O’Connell, Rhoda Ofori-Attah, Carl O’Rourke, Harry Rafferty, Ian Ralph, Richard Alan Reid, Joanna Scanlan, Michael Smiley, Johnny Vegas, Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, and Miltos Yerolemou. Its screenplay is written by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard, based on the eponymous novel by Deborah Moggach. Produced by Alison Owen and Harvey Weinstein, it features creative input by Danny Elfman (music), Eigil Bryld (cinematography), Rick Russell (editing), Shaheen Baig (casting), Simon Elliott (production design), Rebecca Alleway (set), Michael O’Connor (costumes). Release date: November 10 2017.
ALL that I survey is mine: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), her new best friend. Photograph courtesy BBC.com
SHE WAS SO many things. The portraits of her attest to her physical fierceness. An unbeautiful woman, Queen Victoria was pivotal to a stylistic era that was as much about decorum as it was about modesty. Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears is a magnificently crafted work about her friendship with a young Muslim man in the years leading up to her death. Unequivocally, it is everything that an historical drama of this nature should be. And topped with Judi Dench’s immaculate portrayal of Victoria herself, the work is at once deeply evolved with impeccable attention to detail, as it is funny and tragic, historically viable and educational.
Sparing no no punches in reflecting on the queen of the British empire and by default the empress of India as a woman who bears the brunt of her station with complexity and unease, the work is replete with a great sense of textural authority. Queen Victoria is not politically savvy but is subject to the ceremonies and protocol of her context with a mix of boredom and physical discomfort. The work considers her, above all, as a woman, a mother of nine, who was widowed more than 30 years ago, one struggling with obesity and gynaecological issues who is forced by dint of birth to engage in a set of boring imperatives which are about keeping up appearances to the nth degree.
Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) on the reputation of a beautiful carpet, with the promise of a mango that is a little like an orange and a bit like a peach, and magic knocks audaciously on the door of this dour old woman. It’s the kind of magic she doesn’t want to lose: it makes her laugh. It enables her to rediscover her humanity in a world where everyone adulates her, but no one loves her.
It’s a beautiful if sometimes insanely farcical tale that looks at the foreignness of culture through fresh eyes. We see the barbarism of British cuisine through the perceptions of Abdul’s countryman Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), and we see the sheer wonder of Abdul’s life as a prison administrator, the poetry he is heir to and the traditions that are central to his existence, through Victoria’s eyes. We’re also confronted with the complex and grim monolith of colonial mentality that runs as a backdrop to the tale.
With a mad little vignette which sees a bewigged Simon Callow in the role of Puccini, so much detail is central to the film’s focus. Eddie Izzard deliciously plays the irascible 57-year-old ‘Bertie’, Victoria’s eldest son who was crowned King Edward VII after her demise in 1901.
The cinematography, exploiting the utter symmetry of the Victorian lifestyle, to say nothing of the dizzying sense of detail which touches everything from British culinary ritual to the Taj Mahal itself is completely breathtaking, and the music, blending bagpipes with sitars, is as diverse and rich. This is the kind of film that will have you laughing and weeping and returning home to learn more about royal ascendancy and histories.
Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears and performed by Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojla, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder, Trevor Fox, Joe Caffrey, John Stahl, Tim McMullan, Jonathan Harden, John Rowe, Benjamin Haigh, Sandy Grierson, Alaistair Pether, Sally Jokhan, Charlie Stewart, Willie Cochrane, Jonathan Mayer, Mitel Purohit, Sam Kenyon, Samuel Stefan and a supporting cast. It is produced by Tim Bevan and written by Lee Hall based on the book by Shrabani Basu. It was designed by Thomas Newman (music), Danny Cohen (cinematography), Consolata Boyle (costumes) and Alan MacDonald (production). Release date in South Africa: September 29 2017.