The uber-civilised business of murder most foul

murder

VILLAIN in a steam train: Johnny Depp plays the wicked Mr Ratchett. Photograph courtesy 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.

 

Reclusive Salinger and the challenge of a good yarn

rebel

JUST write: Nicholas Hoult is JD Salinger. Photograph courtesy comingsoon.net

AN UTTERLY COMPELLING reflection on the terrifying reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the value of an editor, Danny Strong’s film Rebel in the Rye starts off with sheer charisma, a great sense of authenticity and a tough confrontation with what it takes to be a published writer and what this means for the pocket and the craft.

Telling the life story of American writer JD Salinger, the work flows beautifully up until it tells of the unmitigated success of his first novel, Catcher in the Rye. At that point, the narrative thread becomes lost in too much slavish attention to detail. It is a well made piece which won’t lose you because of its polish, pizzazz and sheer beauty and because of the footholds the first part of the work have established in your sensibilities, but it unwinds disappointingly without the momentum with which it began.

Nicholas Hoult plays an utterly gorgeous Jerry Salinger: he’s focused yet dispassionate, is able to go into melt down as he’s able to shut off communication with the world. He’s a young man of the 1930s with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, with its jazz and booze and the stars of the era, which include Eugene O’Neill, Truman Capote and Charlie Chaplin. Lighting, set, cinematography and costume come together in reflecting the texture and nuance of the 1930s with a sense of brutal truth. And as such, Salinger is a perfect cipher for the creation of the quintessential 20th century novel, as he breathes life into Holden Caulfield, the uncompromising voice of the youth of the era and Catcher’s main character.

As you watch Salinger confront and challenge his dreams, he concatenates against rejection time and time again, and as a very well worn Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), a university teacher and mentor, offers him the emotional wherewithal to become who he must, you get to understand a little of the context of what it takes to become a creative professional. Salinger’s is a world, where no one takes your job as a writer of stories seriously and where the challenges to perform are stiffer than in any other field.

You also get to see the muscle of editorial impetus where Salinger is guided by The New Yorker to tweak his work further and make it even better. You’re explained the difference between a writer and a masturbator, and given a handle on the value of the voice in a story. And above all, you’re exposed to the idea of the Novel, as an almost sacred term and you get to see the inner workings of a writer who knows his own talent but is humbled by the industry’s trajectory of heroes, the makers of masterpieces.

And essentially, the nub of the film is captured in this first half. However, every single woman in the work, without fail, is represented as a tough and hard-edged bitch, overwhelmingly whiny and shallow in her judgey perspectives. It is the men who embrace the story’s guts and stamina, and resoundingly, the film offers deep insight into how war infiltrates Salinger so profoundly it alters how his soul is constituted; you see him fight hard against the kicks and pricks of life and memory to retain his dignity and carry on writing.

While the work is clustered with nuggets from The Catcher in the Rye, and offers insight into the complex character that Salinger developed into, it’s not an unequivocally satisfying or moving watch, but rather one which runs out of emotional steam as it goes. Yes, Salinger made some decisions about the future of his writing career which were not sexy in the Hollywood sense – by electing never to publish again and secluding himself in a house in a wood for the rest of his life, he effectively closed his personal doors to the kind of smarmy happily-ever-after tale or dirt-picking foray that Hollywood loves, and the production team behind this film try their best to honour this as earnestly as they can, but something is lost. Indeed, had the latter part of the film been cropped with a tighter editorial hand, more might have been left unstated, and the work might have retained its ability to sing.

  • Rebel in the Rye is directed by Danny Strong and features Celeste Arias, Nicolaos Argyros, David Berman, Eric Bogosian, Lucy Boynton, Nancy Braun, Roger Brenner, Anna Bullard, Adam Busch, David Cryer, Brian d’Arcy James, Hope Davis, Zoey Deutch, Tim Dougherty, Dana Drori, Chris Ecclestone, Austin Eisenberg, Ron Fassler, Kit Flanagan, Neil Fleischer, Kristine Froseth, Victor Garber, Nalan González Norvind, Alyssa May Gold, Matt Gorsky, Evan Hall, Sydney Hargrove, Devin Harjes, Kelsey Rose Healey, Nicholas Hoult, Keenan Jolliff, John Knyff, Alana Kyriak, Kevin Mambo, Jefferson Mays, Kellan McCann, Doris McCarthy, Bernie McInerney, Caitlin Mehner, Jalina Mercado, Michael Metta, Christopher Moser, Sarah Paulson, Andrew Polk, Brian Wargotz Reese, Kay Rodman, Will Rogers, Francesca Root-Dodson, Matthew Rosvanis, Karen Walsh Rullman, Amy Rutberg, Jimmy Smagula, Kevin Spacey, Janet Stanwood, Braven Strong, Jadyn Tattoli, James Urbaniak, Bernard White, Luke David Young and Frankie Zing. It is written by David Strong based on the JD Salinger biography by Kenneth Slawenski. Produced by Bruce Cohen, it features creative input by Bear McCreary (music), Kramer Morgenthau (cinematography), Joseph Krings (editing), Dina Goldman (production design), Deborah Lynn Scott (costumes) and Alexandra Mazur (set decoration). Release date: November 24 2017.