Kenneth Branagh Takes a Stab at Classic Whodunit ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley star in Twentieth Century Fox’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. ©20th Century Fox. CR: Nicola Dove.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—One might think it takes a lot of hubris to remake Sidney Lumet’s successful 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” After all, the critically acclaimed and popular feature film boasted a star-studded cast that included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Richard Widmark and Albert Finney as the world’s greatest detective Hercule Poirot. It also garnered six Academy Award nominations, winning one for Bergman, who was recognized in the best supporting actress category for her performance. Then again, the Irish filmmaker/actor Kenneth Branagh is no stranger to taking on classic literary works and putting his unique stamp on them. Notably, he has delved again and again into William Shakespeare for material to bring to the stage and screen. He earned Oscar nominations in the acting and directing categories for his iteration of the Bard’s “Henry V” in 1990.

From humble, working-class beginnings in war-torn Belfast, Branagh says his parents impressed upon him, “You don’t ever think anyone’s above you and certainly never think anybody’s beneath you.” He extrapolated that tenet to literature—which he discovered on his own as there were no books in the Branagh house—and arrived at the conclusion that “there’s no reason to get intimidated by—at least in theory—an author somehow wagging their finger at you going, ‘If you don’t understand me, you’re stupid,’ or, ‘I’m so good I can’t be performed.’”

Time and time again, Branagh has taken on classic works and reshaped them for modern audiences, while retaining the scribe’s original intent. So, when the opportunity arose, he didn’t hesitate to engineer the train, not only directing a new, star-studded “Orient Express” but also starring as the brilliant detective reluctantly investigating the murder of an American gangster aboard a European railcar filled with unlikely suspects.

With an adapted screenplay by Michael Green, who also wrote this year’s “Logan,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Alien: Covenant,” Branagh’s 1930s-set train drama stars Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, “Star Wars’” Daisy Ridley, “Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr., “Frozen’s” Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi in this new take on Christie’s most famous whodunit.

Dressed casually in all-black for an interview, the jovial filmmaker/actor spoke about approaching Christie’s material and how he was a fan of star-studded films like “The Towering Inferno” as a child, not to mention how he ended up with the wildest mustache ever seen on screen.

Q: Which one did you read first as a kid, Shakespeare or Agatha Christie?

Branagh: It was both about the same time, actually. We had no books in the house growing up. My parents read newspapers. The first book I bought was from Woolworth’s. It cost 25 pence. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than to own a book. When I brought it home my dad, whom I worshipped, said, “What did you do that for? Have you paid for that?” I said, “I have.” He said, “Look, we’ve got libraries. We pay taxes for that. You could borrow a book.” I said, “But then you wouldn’t have it.” He said, “What do you want to keep a book for? You’ve read it.” I said, “Oh, I might read it again.” So, when people ask me about doing remakes, I say, “You know what? I read books more than once, so …”

Q: How many books do you have now?

Branagh: A lot, actually. Most people come into my house and say I live in a library, and I like that enormously. I like going back to a book. They become like friends.

Q: You’re clearly not intimidated by masterworks like the Bard and Christie. What do you think it is about your experience having previously done so many adaptations of Shakespeare that sets you up to be able to take some of these works and make them for a modern audience?

Branagh: You get to have a practical sort of engagement with that, which is joyous. It’s a joy, it’s a privilege to come and meet these things. The thing with Shakespeare that is so interesting is that for somebody so revered, there’s just no question that in our country, and probably you’ve had experiences of this, when it’s not done very well it is very, very difficult. It’s like watching paint dry.

For something that can be so marvelous, it can be so dreadful and you wonder, “Why is that?” Sometimes it’s just pilot error. Sometimes we who do it don’t do it very well. It’s just as simple as that. It’s incompetence. Sometimes we drag all these other things to it, a sort of reverence, so you open a Christie or a Shakespeare as if you’re entering church, and already you’re not moving the same way or talking the same way, and slightly worried about what people will think.

Q: What engaged you about “Murder on the Orient Express.” What did you find surprising that hooked you in into what you wanted to bring to the screen?

Branagh: The first page, first chapter reads, “Aleppo, Syria.” Aleppo’s been in the news for all sorts of terrible reasons in the last couple years, and then alongside you think, “She actually went to Aleppo.” Agatha Christie actually travelled there. She was on the Tourist Express that took you to the boat to get over to Istanbul. So, it was already a kind of wild, pioneering spirit. The image of that also reminded me of a movie reference, which I think I’ve mentioned to a couple of you I’ve spoken to, which is “Bad Day at Black Rock,” which is a wonderful series of images as that train arrives at the beginning of the picture. The really memorable one is wonderful Spencer Tracy all in black getting off that train, that train leaving and there’s nothing there. Then he turns around and there’s the one-horse town and there’s four people looking at him and a guy with a gun and oh, it’s all going badly.

“Murder on the Orient Express” started that way for me. It’s freezing, it’s 5 a.m. There’s a French guy trying to just get him on the train and he looks up and there’s Daisy Ridley, as it were, and then there’s Mr. Arbuthnot and they say, “Well, do they know each other?” I don’t know if they do know each other. It gets very, very intriguing quickly. So, it was from the very beginning.

Q: Why did you change it to Jerusalem, instead?

Branagh: At one stage, we were going to start at Aleppo. We were going to start on the Tourist Express. The thing (screenwriter) Michael Green wanted to do that I applauded was show Poirot in action from the word “go.” I present a denouement at the beginning of the show that was from a case that we didn’t know. When I first read the script, the thing that I found most delicious was that I was leaning forward thinking, “What is he doing, exactly?” Then, by the time he puts a (walking) cane in the wall, I’m thinking, “He’s just a bit mad, isn’t he?” But he knows something we don’t. Sure enough, a moment later a man escapes and then is caught.

The idea that presenting somebody who clearly was a few steps ahead in his own, unusual way was important, as was opening in an exotic location that just said, this man lives in these kinds of worlds. Here we also wanted to say, this thing takes him, from there he gets to Istanbul. They’re calling him to London, he’s on the train, he gets stopped, he gets interrupted but he’s got to go back to the East. In the previous movie, great as it is, Poirot gets on the train and everybody reports what he is. “Oh, you’re the greatest detective in the world,” but (the audience) hasn’t seen any evidence of that. Here, it felt like our audience could understand that if somebody dies on this train, you’re going to have to deal with Poirot.

Q: This movie brings back an old tradition in Hollywood of big star casts. How challenging was it for you to assemble this cast and do you expect tradition to continue now?

Branagh: The very same time when I was reading Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, I remember seeing a poster for “The Towering Inferno” on my way to the bus stop when I was going to school. Every day I’d go past and I’d peek in and it would say, “The Architect: Paul Newman.” “The Firefighter: Steve McQueen.” “The Millionaire: Fred Astaire.”  I got excited about that. I think Roger Ebert famously said, “Never go near a movie that has more than 10 pictures on the front.” I revere him as well, but I respectfully disagree. It makes for a different kind of event, because there’s a little bit of anybody who goes, “I wonder how they all got on? I wonder if Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, what they’re like in scenes together?” That’s a very good film, “The Towering Inferno,” by the way.

I don’t know when it will come back. It’s a logistical challenge, there’s no question, because everybody says, “Oh, great. I’d love to do this, and look, I’ve seen my part. My part is probably only 10 days working.” The fun of it is, “Come and be on the train together.” There was a month in the middle of the schedule where everybody was there, and on either side of that were 200 scenes. The key thing for me being in it was to prepare months ahead. I was way, way ahead with preparations for what I had to do.

Q: You’re not just dealing with an iconic book here, but also with an iconic character. What Poirot are you showing us?

Branagh: The one who has the potential to be shaken. We make him fairly fixed in his position at the beginning of the film: there is right, there is wrong, there is nothing in between. That has to be the case, because it seems that the gift of understanding whether that’s true, as he also says, makes most of life unbearable, but it is useful in the detection of crime.

So, he gets to the end and now he’s faced with a more human challenge of whether there is anything in between right and wrong; that someone like him, for whom imbalance almost unmans him. I guess the difference is, as opposed to other Poirots, it’s the imbalance that bothers him.

Q: Are you anything like him?

Branagh: I got to be a little bit of a neat freak.

Q: Has the experience of acting and directing become easier over time with you?

Branagh: It’s never easy, but it’s possible to enjoy more. What is exciting sometimes is the awareness that you’ve gathered an enormous amount of experience and you have this privilege of still being able to do it. I count this picture to picture. So, they let me do this one. (Filmmaker Martin) Scorsese says, “You hope the picture makes enough to allow you to do the next one.” I never assume there’s another picture around the corner because I’ve been in this game too long and I’ve seen plenty of things fall through. If the audience doesn’t come, they’ll be no more of these movies.

As for the actors, I was very thrilled to work with each of them, and I really enjoyed being in the one-on-one scenes with them. I felt I learned a lot. I was genuinely impressed by at various levels. Daisy Ridley for instance, right in the middle of that massive franchise, is very honest and humble about her lack of experience, and yet she’s a real natural, not overwhelmed but not arrogant, either. I learned a lot from her self-possession. I was very impressed. Penelope Cruz is so experienced and such a worrier. She just worries about it the whole time, and in a good way. Always full of questions. Johnny Depp is so playful. His confidence around the camera is total. With Michelle Pfeiffer, you get this kind of focus. She comes in, and you don’t want to be making her wait. Not that she had any sort of diva-ish tendencies at all, but she’s so ready to go. I mean you just don’t call her until everything’s set and then she’s that thing. Clint Eastwood called them fast-starters. They know what they’re going to do. You want to be ready and capture it and then let them go.

Q: Do you still like to travel by train?

Branagh: It gets harder and harder. I don’t know if you feel this right now, but I feel like I’ve felt it just in the last few months, that somehow, and I know it’s a bit of a modern cliche, we’re all on our devices, but I’ve really felt the intensification of that sort of imagery in the world and of the difficulty of getting away from them. I saw something Chris Hemsworth wrote the other day about going on set with one of those big ensemble versions of The Avengers, and this number of people, all the actors waiting to do a scene, and all on their phones. Chris walked in and said, “Do you remember the days when we used to sit like this, but we’d all talk to each other?”

I really felt that intensification. I’ve felt myself using it more than usual. We’re also in a business where it’s so reactive. Somehow, if people don’t hear from you in 20 minutes, they’re like, “What’s going on? Did something happen?” Just like an hour and they assume you’re dead.

Q: Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, have you stayed in touch with him since you directed him in “Thor?” Have you had a chance to see his new film, “Thor: Ragnarok?”

Branagh: No, I haven’t but I’m looking forward to it very much. Of course, I’ll see it.

Q: Would you consider Agatha Christie’s work as a social commentary upon the times we are living? For example, there is also the scene where the wine is mixed together. How would you comment on that?

Branagh: I am and always have been pro-diversity in the casting of films and plays and things, and I am much less bothered by historical accuracies in that regard. However, this happened to be something where maybe we can have both things. You get a wonderful actor like Leslie Odom Jr. in a role that’s based on many real characters, African Brits who’d had this kind of experience in the Army, but also just to acknowledge a bit of casual racism that the period could also obviously have.

It doesn’t become our main focus, but it doesn’t confuse by having every single ethnicity and race in the train, although across the film we try and be imaginative about that. We’re in a film where the first character we see is a black policeman. He happens to be one of our greatest young English actors; who just played Hamlet for The Royal Shakespeare Company. Poirot walks into a kitchen where the first thing he says is, “Mohammed, my friend.” So, dispositionally, the movie is like Christie herself, who’d much travelled in all those regions of the world. It tries to meet my sensibilities and make some point about what was going on. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t ignoring the issues but it wasn’t the film’s job to do in toto.

Q: How hard was it to find the right mustache for Poirot?

Branagh: It took six months of sculpting and the crushing understanding. I didn’t have the follicle power to grow it.

Q: After you wrapped, did you keep it or burn it?

Branagh: It lives. Actually, there are several of them and they all have names.