If you want to adapt a classic story, Sir Kenneth Branagh is the man for the job. So, with the likes of Henry V (1989), Hamlet (1996) and Cinderella (2015) under his belt, there was a great deal of satisfaction when Branagh was confirmed for the director’s chair in this newest incarnation of Agatha Christie’s world famous detective, Hercule Poirot. And it is a relief that Branagh has done the character such justice, with a faithful retelling that just happens to look gorgeous, courtesy of some stellar cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos.
The set-up is classic Christie. There’s a murder. There’s a roster of suspicious, surreptitious subjects. There’s Poirot, with his finely trimmed moustache and even finer taste in straightened ties and Dickens’ novels. And there’s the mystery, the whodunit, that keeps us invested until the final flourish: the reveal.
The narrative structure is maintained, so any Poirot fanatics will not find disappointment: Branagh’s film isn’t out to change the formula. Instead, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green opt to focus on the details of the affair, fleshing out the idiosyncrasies of Christie’s detective, and hiring an insanely talented cast to leech out the specificities of their characters within the conscientiously composed narrative.
Not all of the actors are allowed a great amount of screen time to make a strong impression. But those that are bequeathed the stage to show off their skills, do so with style. Branagh is easily the stand-out. With the hurdle of David Suchet’s iconic performance standing in his path, Branagh simply skirts around it: not an imitation, but a re-imagining. A more physically adept interpretation, Branagh also imbues Poirot with an unexpected world-weariness. Rather than act as the impenetrable sentinel, there’s a humanity to his Poirot that makes his quest to solve the mystery all that more engaging. It helps that the personalities he interacts with are equally interesting. The likes of Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and the effervescent Dame Judi Dench provide a sense of esteem and quality to the whole production, bringing each character to life in a way that only they could manage with such authenticity. High praise to Michelle Pfeiffer in particular: with mother! and Murder on the Orient Express, she’s made somewhat of a year for herself playing dubious dames.
However, all of the intricacies of the performances’, and the meticulous visual and physical clues that propel the mystery forward, could not appear as meritoriously as they do without the benefit of an exceptional cinematographic eye, as lent in this case by regular Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos. What could have easily succeeded under a static composition of shots, instead excels with the ambitious approach for greater mobility with the camera, as well as a selection of unconventional angles that add to the euphoria of the investigation. The most prominent of these techniques is the use of a birds-eye-view perspective as Poirot searches for answers, reminiscent of something akin to a Cluedo board: this welcomes the audience to actively participate in the investigation with Poirot, an intelligent touch that invigorates rather than blunting, never forcing the spectator to feel at odds with, or lesser than, the protagonist. While they can often go unrecognised, these touches should be acknowledged and celebrated: they build upon the overall aesthetic of the film and really help harmonize it with the tightly structured narrative as drawn from Christie’s source material.
There are issues for sure. One too many times did I notice the obvious shadow of green screen behind Poirot and co. as they venture out from the eponymous train. Furthermore, as with any mystery, the answers to the questions posed throughout never quite fulfil the promise of the premise. However, these are minor faults in a wildly enjoyable experience from Kenneth Branagh and his venerated team. The narrative ebbs and flows with a fluidity that never grows tiresome. And the performances and cinematography that make up the bulk of the film’s aesthetic value all contribute meaningfully to this storytelling. It’s a successful and charming trip and one that I would gladly take again, if only to get another glance at Poirot’s beautifully sculpted facial hair: trust me when I say that it’s worth the price of admission alone.