“Murder on the Orient Express”

Murder on the Orient Express

IT’S ALL TOO easy to dismiss Agatha Christie as a literary mediocrity whose career was built on the creation of mindless whodunnits destined only to fill any unfilled ninety-minute slots on the BBC’s television schedule. But that’s to overlook Christie’s astute treatment of women, her deep understanding of interpersonal dynamics and the sheer prowess of her storytelling, all of which are why she remains, to this day, the most widely read author ever to write. The latest reminder of Christie’s enduring appeal is the release of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded adaptation of her most celebrated mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, but what’s a shame is that Branagh fails to elevate the story from typical terrestrial Sunday night entertainment to something more fitting of the silver screen. Murder on the Orient Express is as satisfying and well-rounded as ever, but not nearly a good enough use of its cast or its veteran director.

Those who have read the novel or seen any of its (many) adaptations will likely be familiar with the plot. The film opens with a scene set in Jerusalem, where Hercule Poirot, a consummate perfectionist, measures two boiled eggs to see if they’re the same size before solving a mystery involving a priest, a rabbi and an imam. (Of course, there is the perfunctory “walk into a bar” joke). What follows––the titular murder on a train from Istanbul to Calais holding thirteen apparent strangers––is relatively faithful to the story. There are some examples of creative licence, namely a secondary stabbing, but otherwise the events that play out will not seem unknown. In the characters there is a more obvious divergence. First of all, there is an amalgamation of two characters into one, but more significantly, Poirot, a short, bald detective with a well-waxed moustache, now looks an awful lot like Kenneth Branagh––but with a moustache.

There is a slightly embarrassing string of moments in which each of the characters is introduced, solely because the actors that play those characters include Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and others. You can almost hear the sound of the audience cheering when the camera first falls on each one.

There is a slightly embarrassing string of moments in which each of the characters is introduced, solely because the actors that play those characters include Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and others. You can almost hear the sound of the audience cheering when the camera first falls on each one, and these aren’t the first times you have the impression that Sir Kenneth invited some A-list friends to come along and make a Christie, and no need to do anything too different to that which had been done countless times before. This is the film’s cardinal sin: though cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos treats us to stunning, snow-covered scenery and Christie’s original plot remains relatively intact, the characters that are so fundamental to the enjoyment of the story are woefully underdeveloped and the actors that play them woefully underused. There are plenty of unusual overhead shots and implications of Poirot’s almost Christ-like omniscience and sense of justice, but not enough else taking place for us to care.

It could have been worse, of course, but that’s hardly high praise. Murder on the Orient Express gets away with a great deal because its plot is timeless and the imagery is lavish and grand. But for its budget, its director and its cast, the final incarnation of the film should be considered a failure, even if, as I did, you expected it to be much worse.

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“Black Mass”

Black Mass

ANY GOOD GANGSTER FLICK dares, if not exhorts, the audience to find something to admire in its subjects.

The characters may be charismatic, larger-than-life figures, or working-class overachievers who defy the disadvantages of their birth to accumulate staggering wealth and rise to positions of power they could never come to occupy through legal means. Or they’re Robin Hood types: class-war heroes who steal from the rich and powerful so they can fill the pockets of those in their communities (or at least appear to.) But while Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, about the Irish-American crime lord Whitey Bulger, is at times absorbing, it doesn’t quite convince anyone to care about its villainous protagonist.

In south Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, gathers power, courtesy of an unholy alliance with the FBI and the political disregard of his brother, the Massachusetts State Senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), with whom the Bulger boys grew up, has given Whitey virtual immunity from prosecution in return for “intel” on the Italian mafia operating in the northern part of the city, a deal which permits him to operate unencumbered by the forces of the law. This, Whitey claims, does not mean he is an informant–“there’s informing and there’s informing,” he tells an associate–but what it does mean is that the bonds forged on the unforgiving streets of south Boston disregard obvious contradictions, such as those found in a triumvirate that includes a government agent, a politician and a trigger-happy gangster. It is these delicate relationships–in particular, the relationship between Whitey and Connolly–around which the film revolves. Intimacy, in fact, is a running theme. Closeness might suggest trust, but it also suggests danger–especially if you happen to be part of Whitey’s crew.

Of course, nothing is more befitting a gangster film than a tense exchange over a dinner table and Black Mass reworks Joe Pesci’s “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas with some success. Black Mass borrows openly from other films in the genre and in this reuse of tried-and-tested tropes, scenes and settings–from The Godfather and The Departed among others–it at times becomes formulaic. But the principal failure of Black Mass is not that it is formulaic: it is that it takes no time at all either to develop Whitey’s inner world. It is frustrating that the writers do not even try to explain why Whitey is the way he is, and how it can be that two brothers can grow up to live such different lives. Consequently Whitey at times seems to be little more that a horror movie villain, an effect aggravated by Cooper’s tendency to luxuriate in the assorted stranglings and shootings conducted by the Winter Hill boys. Scant screen time is paid to creating the psychological complexity that makes gangsters such compelling characters, and for the better part of the film, Whitey does little except prowl around Southie with his thin hair combed back against his scalp and the collar of his leather jacket turned up against the wind. Interestingly, one of the best scenes of the film comes when Whitey dotes on his family in an early scene. Whitey, over dinner, marries the values of the gangster and the family man when he tells his young son, Douglas that “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Much of what you think of Black Mass will depend on what you make of its high priest, the blue-eyed, thin-lipped Johnny Depp, but the film really belongs to Joel Edgerton, who turns in a first-rate performance as a man in denial that there is any conflict between his work for the FBI and his friendship with Whitey Bulger.

There are absorbing moments of drama in Black Mass, but they’re sporadic, and the result is an unsatisfying and episodic depiction of an interesting story.

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