Thursday, November 16, 2017

Frankenstein on the Orient Express?

Kenneth Branagh broke my heart back in 1994.

Just 176 years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley crafted the perfect romantic horror novel – Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Shelley gave us gorgeous settings, slowly developed the obsessive madness of her primary character, established the greater humanity and ultimate heartbreak of Frankenstein's creature, crafted burgeoning romance and subsequent tragedy, and intentionally kept us completely in the dark about the science of reanimation to dissuade future generations from repeating the horrendous mistake. Branagh's 1994 movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, did none of that. In place of all those graceful subtleties, Branagh gave us bombastic acting, manic storytelling, graphic gory nastiness at every turn, unnecessary and ineffective alterations, and a detailed (and disgusting) understanding of the reanimation process.

Granted, I am a purist when it comes to film adaptations of literature, but I'm willing to forgive creative license if the end result proves itself worthy. Branagh at least tried to be more faithful to the source material than James Whale did in 1931 with his iconic and truly awful Frankenstein that so many people consider to be the classic retelling. The big mistake Branagh made was to focus too much on the gothic horror elements of the story and not enough on the greater tragedies of the human spirit. The resulting movie is a grotesque version of a tale originally balanced on a razor's edge between horror and beauty.

When I first saw the poster for the new Murder on the Orient Express hanging in our local movie theater I was intrigued. The Agatha Christie novel is another one of my all-time favorites. Although the 1974 movie starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot was masterful, perhaps forty years on it was time for an updated presentation to lure in modern audiences. The poster listed a treasure trove of excellent actors including Brannagh, Pfeiffer, Dench, Colman, Depp, etc., etc., etc. And then it named the director – Kenneth Branagh.

Groan... Intrigue and dread. Branagh had already mercilessly vivisected one of my literary idols. Was Agatha Christie to fall victim to the same treatment as Mary Shelley?

Commercials showed chase scenes. There are no chase scenes in the book. The trailer shows a bridge and Poirot majestically walking ahead of the train. There's no bridge in the book, Poirot does nothing majestically and he never leaves the train. Branagh is shown to be a dapper, handsome Poirot with a ridiculous mustache. The only thing right about that is the mustache, to an extent.

When the time came for the movie's release, my feelings were mixed. I wanted to see it, but I didn't. Sunday at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, I took my seat in the balcony and steeled myself for disappointment.

Divergence from the novel occurs immediately, telling you this isn't your mother's Orient Express. There are enough similarities between written page and celluloid to let you know Branagh respects the former enough to develop the appropriate atmosphere in the latter. In doing so, he successfully avoids the fundamental problem with his Frankenstein debacle. It feels right, even if details of character and plot are not. There general sense of humor is right, the beautiful scenery is right, the underlying motivation for the murder is right. Again, I'm not against creative reinterpretation if it's done well. Minor changes are easily forgiven because Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is pretty, fun and loyal enough.

The only time Branagh really fails is at the denouement. When Poirot parades out the solution of the crime to the implicated passengers, the entire process feels rushed. Certain important details have not yet been uncovered, recent fisticuffs are still too fresh to have been forgiven, and a proper investigation of facts has not been completed. It's almost as though filming had reached a point where Branagh said "Right! This has gone on long enough. Let's wrap it up!" without properly building to the emotional payoff we expect from Agatha Christie's climactic expositions. The hamminess of classically-trained Shakespearean theater acting that had simmered below the surface throughout the film bursts forth and threatens to derail the entire show.

In the end, even though Branagh's Poirot gets the job done and Branagh himself provides a piece of slick entertainment, I'll have to go with Albert Finney for authenticity.