Friday, 29 December 2017

My 17 Best Films of 2017

As awful as 2017 turned out to be, it was undoubtedly saved by numerous trips to the movies. Here's the best of what kept us sane.

17. It

A good deal of hype, along with a suitably creepy marketing campaign, saw expectations for the first cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's work reach a pitch in advance of its release. Fortunately, audiences were not disappointed. Helmer Andrés Muschietti's It is an engaging and triumphant take on a seminal title, one replete with equal parts horror, humour and ambition, likely to amuse as often as it induces palpable discomfort and outright terror. 

King's narrative still freezes the blood. In 1980s Derry, Maine, a band of friends (harvested from the best bits of The GooniesE.T. and Stand By Me) is terrorised by a malevolent presence that has long stalked their town. Taking whichever form is most likely to terrify its victims, the spirit's go-to manifestation is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), an undoubted leader in fanning the flames of global coulrophobia. With his staring eyes, tufts of orange hair, twisted grin and Renaissance-era wardrobe, Skarsgård's portrayal is stunning, if not downright odd – a wicked, cruel, occasionally hilarious emissary of evil that will harry the rest of fitful sleepers everywhere. Sweet dreams.

16. Logan 

Having played the Wolverine in a host of X-Men titles since 2000, Hugh Jackman hung up his claws and bowed out in 2017 with the spectacularly violent Logan, a final instalment in the otherwise underwhelming trilogy dedicated to the character. The Wolverine director James Mangold returns to the fold and recalibrates his approach, dispensing with the relatively sanitised populism that had held Jackman's inner maniac in check for 17 years. His was a wise decision.

Given that Logan is an ornery loner with anger issues and retractable metal blades in his fists, he has always appeared slightly stunted in various cinematic outings. Mangold releases the shackles here, unleashing Jackman as a foul-mouthed agent of destruction, cutting his way (quite literally) through a swathe of bad hombres to a bloody finish. Thankfully, the savagery is far from gratuitous. A touching story of friendship and sacrifice underpins everything, not least Logan's attempts to shield ailing mentor Charles Xavier (a pitch-perfect Patrick Stewart) and young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) from a nefarious paramilitary group. Stripped down to the bare bones, and eschewing the assumptions of its genre DNA, Logan was a thrilling surprise.

15. Silence

An apogee of Martin Scorsese's ever-evolving relationship with religion, Silence's long gestation (Scorsese started adapting Shusaku Endo's novel in 1990) imbues it with an austere air every bit in keeping with that of something long considered the auteur's passion piece. Ostensibly focusing on the trials of Portuguese Jesuits in 17th-century Japan, its weighty overtones and ideas of devotion, contrition and faith are largely unavoidable. 

Given the director's past penchant for archly cinematic grandstanding, such a mix of religious fervour and spiritual symbolism could have fallen into the realms of the ridiculous. It is anything but. The idealistic padres are plunged into an unforgiving landscape, one that immediately tests their learning and adherence to the power of the almighty. Blessed with an impressive central trio – Andrew Gardfield, Adam Driver and the white whale of the story, Liam Neeson – Silence is an arresting chronicle of tribulation and torment. Aesthetic excellence aside, it's no easy watch, but, with a multitude of urgent questions demanding equally urgent answers, it is an essential one.

14. John Wick: Chapter 2

Keanu Reeves's unthreateningly named assassin returned to screens in 2017 trailing the same rage he marshalled two years ago, while deftly switching roles from apex predator to fleeing prey. In sole command, following the departure of John Wick co-director David Leitch for pastures new (Atomic Blonde), Chad Stahelski oversees a heightened, refined version of chapter one. Drenched in a rich neon glow and throbbing with unholy savagery, the world is expanded, feeling infinitely more dangerous. 

Like another Reeves epic, SpeedChapter 2's ferocious pace rarely slows. When it does, the proceedings are invariably girded by exposition that helps to build up Wick's increasing desperation. Once the tightly observed rules of his subculture are breached, nobody, not even Ian McShane's urbane fixer can stave off the consequences. A third volume is all but promised. Expect more gunfire.

13. Wind River

Jeremy Renner produced arguably 2017's most understated performances in Taylor Sheridan's desolate frontier fable. As a crime thriller and wintry mystery, Wind River satisfies on both fronts. Sheridan penned the equally superb Sicario and Hell or High Water, two pictures bristling with the poise that makes this so compelling, and, like the former, a female focal point (in this case, Elizabeth Olsen's callow FBI agent) serves as a vital ingredient.

But it is Renner who distinguishes himself. A solitary wildlife hunter, sullen as he is gentle, he elevates Wind River with a quiet resolve, the necessary bridge between the distinct worlds of federal authority and native custom. He and Olsen range across the tundra of the titular Indian reservation, determined to bring to justice those responsible for the rape and murder of a local woman (a real-world theme worthy of attention). Sheridan uses this strange match to blend hard-boiled noir and naturalistic motifs, skilfully rendering a visceral, genuinely intriguing drama of no little depth.

12. The Beguiled

The American civil war forms the backdrop of Sofia Coppolla's bewitching psychological drama, a remake of the Clint Eastwood-starring 1971 original, which was itself a reworking of the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. A significantly more sober affair than the earlier iteration, Colin Farrell fills out the Eastwood-shaped space by imbuing his wounded soldier with a knowing, raffish air that spreads and creeps, like a drug, through his staid Southern refuge. Both his nemesis and saviour, Nicole Kidman's stately headmistress balances the impact of his arrival at a secluded Virginia girls school.

While its evocative milieu and quiet foreboding do much to stir the emotions, Coppolla's direction remains spare. She weaves her spell with grace and a sure hand, resisting the urge to rush towards her conclusion. Exquisite to behold and laced with sexual, political and societal tension, The Beguiled's trump card is an utterly brilliant showing by Kirsten Dunst, whose entire form bleeds sadness, regret and unwanted solitude. 

11. It Comes at Night

As Trump and Brexit tear at the fibres of reality, our appetite for consuming dystopian fiction continues apace. Trey Edwards Shults's sophomore directorial effort is a spartan and chilling hellscape of a movie, presented free of context and armed with the assurance that its atmosphere alone is enough to draw in an audience. He is not wrong. It Comes at Night is almost majestic in its bleakness, offering rewards aplenty for those willing to invest. 

Not a film that sits easily in the horror annals, in spite of its trappings, this is placed in a world where an unspecified disease has ruptured society. How far its toll extends beyond the isolated forest homestead of paranoid Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is never revealed. It almost doesn't matter: The immediacy of their predicament is clear. Raiding outsiders, the spectre of sickness, dwindling supplies and the arrival of a questionably motivated young couple, Will (Christopher Abbott) and Kim (Riley Keogh), are concerns too pressing to afford space for anything else. With a searing performance from Edgerton to the fore, Shults ratchets up the pressure with slow, steady abandon, rumbling towards a conclusion as deliberately opaque as the rest of the tale.

10. The Lost City of Z

Little seen but fascinating, this account of explorer Percy Fawcett's Amazonian odyssey during the early twentieth century enjoyed limited financial success in spite of its grand framing. A meagre box office haul is no indicator of quality, however. The ever discerning James Gray brings his keen eye to an adaptation of David Grann's 2009 book focusing on Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his search for a lost metropolis somewhere in the vast, unknowable reaches of the South American jungle.

Gray's film is absorbing and often imperious. It burns slow, possessed of a quietly swaggering certainty, unfolding as it sees fit. The spectacle is often located in humble themes – family, class, pride and the terrible price of obsession – and admirable confidence shines through in powerfully straightforward aspirations. As with the celluloid adventures of the 70s and 80s, The Lost City of Z pulls off the trick of being both aloof and engaged, Gray's sumptuous style finding form in the rainforest's deafeningly naturalistic soundscapes and the terrific cast's minimal exposition. 

9. Baby Driver

If style alone decided success, Baby Driver would have crushed the opposition before its first track played out. Such is the unfettered joy at the heart of Edgar Wright's outrageously entertaining heist caper that its whip-smart plot winds up as a somewhat unnecessary addendum. The marvellous cast (Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal) delivers in spades, Hamm, in particular, bringing much of Don Draper's charisma to bear as a surprisingly complex antagonist.

Where Wright succeeds above all else, of course, is in executing a phenomenally slick actioner that pays homage to the genre without ever ripping it off. Indeed, Baby Driver went unchallenged by its 2017 peers – none could compete with its signature brew of stunt work and strutting fearlessness, all underpinned by a fluidity of purpose. As getaway driver Baby (Elgort) motors to the beat of a continuous soundtrack used to drown out the tinnitus inside his head, Wright's instinct is to carry us along for the ride, the tunes scoring and directing the weaving, drifting vehicle for this singular vision. 

8. War for the Planet of the Apes

The third chapter in a rebooted franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes ups the ante from films one and two, delivering a bold and brilliantly imagined sci-fi epic that builds on the foundations already laid. Anchored by more than one  performance – most notably Andy Serkis's breathtaking depiction of hyper-intelligent alpha chimpanzee Caesar and Woody Harrelson's swivel-eyed villainy – the picture completes the not insignificant task of outdoing its accomplished predecessors.

From a technical standpoint, War is an astonishing feat. If incumbent director Matt Reeves prefers not to linger on the brilliance of his film, favouring plot over bombast, its merits are no less obvious. This is a story revolving around a group of CG simians that never once seems as if it is riffing on the wizardry required to bring that cast to life. It is no stretch to conclude that these look and move like the real thing, with every single detail, from their matted, sodden and snow-sprinkled fur to their squat and shuffling movements, rendered in agonising detail. Sorrow, fear and contentment inhabit their eyes. It is stunning stuff. 

7. Get Out

One could be forgiven, in the first year of the Trump assault on decency and progress, for failing to foresee the oncoming racial polemic in a below-the-radar horror flick created by comedian Jordan Peele and featuring Josh from The West Wing as its creepy oddball. It is in that slyness, however, that Peele's Get Out unfurls its secrets. The freshman director spins a vivid yarn, by turns amusing, grotesque and uniquely horrifying.

To detail the premise is to sell out its core enigma, though, needless to say, Daniel Kaluuya's watchful lead is right to be wary of spending the weekend with girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) plainly bonkers parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). On a deeper level, Peele interferes with our ingrained assumptions, placing the action, with its controversial conceits of invasive prejudice and violence, within an unexpected setting: not the sweltering post-Jim Crow American South but upstate New York, all crisp temperatures, pastoral shades and white Obama disciples. 

6. Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck's haunted and nuanced work as the tortured protagonist of Kenneth Lonergan's frigid family tale rightly secured him a Best Actor gong at the Oscars in February. Affleck's trick is to conjure a well of profound sadness that flits back and forth across his otherwise stoic visage, the weight of the past and the bracing demands of the present dragging him to places that jeopardise his delicately balanced emotional and physical comfort. 

Manchester by the Sea thrives in unpicking the fabric of familial ties, Affleck's lonely janitor finding himself the legal guardian of an orphaned nephew (Lucas Hedges). It is a film keen to inhabit the spaces between its coterie of flawed, rounded, broken people – each is damaged, none are beyond hope. Upon a flinty, salt-stained New England canvas, Lonergan paints a parable of raw human experience best exemplified by Michelle Williams's heart-stopping supporting turn. 

5. Detroit

In a year when America's fetid undercurrent of racism exploded to the surface with the gleeful inducement of its toddler in chief, Detroit seemed an incredibly topical contribution to 2017. Overseen by Kathryn Bigelow, it ripples with the immersive intensity that defined both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, locating those elements not in some blasted foreign war zone but in that most American of locales: Motown. 

Police maleficence and civil unrest are the obvious and dominant factors here, but Bigelow's movie wields a darker edge, one of systemic bigotry. In 1960s Detroit, law enforcement and rioters clash – the backdrop is the lopsided dynamic between the state and those on the outer fringes. John Boyega stands out as the security guard caught up in the careening, unchecked malice set off by Will Poulter's power-tripping beat cop. The parallels between past and present alone are propulsive. It an essential testament of how brutality and racial animus commune to undermine the progress we hope to make. 

4. La La Land

The recipient, briefly, of this year's Oscar for Best Picture, La La Land may have missed out on the big prize but such embarrassments should not distract from the whimsical brilliance of Damien Chazelle's LA musical. His follow-up to the scorching Whiplash, Chazelle moulded a charming paean, of superlative style and elegance, to Hollywood's golden age, never stooping to cater to the masses. It retains its appeal, however, thanks to a sense of freshness and the deployment of two charming stars in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Reunited once again, this modern day Fred and Ginger radiate class, each a perfect compliment to the other.

La La Land avoids easy classification: romance, drama, comedy; it hits every beat. The constant strand throughout is the joyous recall of yesteryear. Show-stopping sequences (not least the dazzling opening number on a clogged freeway) abound, balanced by flighty outbreaks of song and dance, and a gripping dreamscape of love found and love lost. Beyond triumphant. 

3. Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan has always been known as an auteur fixed on more than just spectacle. Memento was a grimy mind-bender sporting considerable low-res cool, The Prestige a clever period mystery steeped in the ambience of Victorian London. Even Interstellar wielded a mighty message to sit alongside its visual ambition. With Dunkirk, however, Nolan jettisons the mere telling of a story and chooses, instead, to depict it, completely and without compromise.

An event familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of British history, the rescue of British and French forces from under the advancing yoke of a Nazi onslaught is simply the base upon which Nolan constructs this masterpiece. He wastes next to no time with characterisation or plotting, extraneous elements likely to dilute that which he is trying to convey. As a result, his picture emerges as a slice of thundering and peerless filmmaking. Its relentless march towards an inevitable conclusion – the salvation of thousands from a wind-scudded Alamo – never feels rote; menace and fateful purpose are present in equal measures and in every frame. Boasting a metronomic musical suite that feeds the tension to bursting point and a triptych of intersecting, smartly paced arcs, Dunkirk was 2017's most affecting cinematic experience. 

2. Blade Runner 2049

Unlike Alien Covenant, Ridley Scott relinquished helming duties for the other 2017 sequel to one of his great works, Blade Runner. In the driving seat for Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve (ArrivalSicarioPrisoners) provides a fresh take on Scott's 35-year-old dystopian classic, widely regarded amongst the finest movies ever committed to film. Blade Runner's angular narrative, brilliant as it was, remains an acquired taste. 2049's screenwriting team (including original scribe Hampton Fancher), however, has crafted a broader opus, more accessible yet no less profound or wondrous.

As Ryan Gosling's K seeks the cornerstone of mankind's own evolved existence, a quest that brings him into the orbit of the retired Deckard (an excellent Harrison Ford), every inch of the screen explodes with cinematographer Roger Deakins's breathtaking visuals, be they the sepia hues of a long-lost Las Vegas or the luminous glare filtering through the cracks of Los Angeles's soaking urban hell. The soaring score, too, appears like an old friend, its Vangelis-inspired, synth-infused glory calling forth the ghosts of days past. Remarkably, even the soundscapes of Scott's masterful progenitor have returned, from the shimmering echoes of the Wallace Corporation's edifice-like headquarters to the booming, hissing, groaning hubbub that swirls through the avenues of the looming megatropolis. Villeneuve's endeavours are beautiful and astounding, at once operatic, elegiac and steeped in the essence of all that has gone before. 

1. Moonlight

As baffling as the Oscar night snafu involving a confused Warren Beatty, the Best Picture award and a likely fired flunky may now seem, it felt especially egregious that Moonlight was, even for a brief moment, robbed of its honour. The splendour of La La Land aside, to anyone fortunate enough to have been exposed to Barry Jenkins's hypnotic and devastatingly affecting coming-of-age parable, the truth was all too obvious.

No mere study of repressed sexuality, crippling poverty or absent intimacy, Moonlight is, ultimately, whatever one wishes it to be. Anchored in its opening leg by a transcendent Mahershala Ali and proudly displaying a central character portrayed in three acts by a trio of unvarnished, distinctive young performers, this is a crucial, startling, magnificent film. A towering achievement, truly.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Justice League

Rating: 2/5

After what seems like an eternity of hype and expectation, Zack Snyder's Justice League, the latest chapter in the DC Extended Universe, has finally arrived to challenge the Avengers' dominance in the superhero super-group stakes.

DC's previous offerings have, at best, been a mixed bag. The Snyder-directed Man of Steel carried producer Christopher Nolan's scrubbed sheen, though it went unloved, for all its beauty and weighty themes. Last year's entries, Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, did little to garnish a franchise in need of some pep. The former was a mess, deeply unlikable and smugly (read: wrongly) convinced of its own brilliance. The latter (which also featured Snyder at the helm) was loud and bold, though a glowering tone rendered it a dull, uninspiring watch.

Only Wonder Woman can be judged an undisputed success. Patty Jenkins succeeded where Snyder and Suicide Squad's David Ayer fell down: She and star Gal Gadot turned out a fun product. It ably balanced spectacle and comedy, injecting it all with a healthy dose of female empowerment.

Like its Marvel rival, whose next ensemble piece arrives in May, Justice League deploys a coterie of do-gooders, some recognisable, others less so, to battle (as ever) a threat of world-ending proportions, namely Ciarán Hinds's arch villain, Steppenwolf, whose dastardly plot involves invading and ransacking Earth in order to locate a trio of powerful devices known as Mother Boxes. Aided by an army of demonic bugs, his ultimate goal, such as it is, involves conjoining the three cubes, thus bringing on a dystopian hellscape to rival Brexit.

Leading the fight is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), still mourning Superman's (Henry Cavill) gesture of self-sacrifice at the conclusion of Dawn of Justice and determined to gather together crusaders for the purpose of countering Steppenwolf, whose hordes feed on the creeping anarchy induced by Kal-El's departure. 

Quite how he is aware of the impending apocalypse is somewhat unclear, but with "I'm rich" being his essential superpower, that superior knowledge is simply accepted. 

Nonetheless, alongside Gadot's Amazon princess, Wayne recruits seafaring badass Aquaman (Jason Momoa, set for his own movie in 2018), bio-mechanical genius Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and the Flash (Ezra Miller), whose sarcasm and geeky charm are matched by an ability to move as quickly as the lightning that powers him.

Together they make for an impressive crew, each boasting a particular set of skills. Unfortunately, however, Justice League lacks the harmony so inherent to the Avengers franchise, which benefits, it has to be said, merely from getting there first. Outside of the positives brought to bear by the troupe's interplay and a welcome charge of humour, Snyder's work is ultimately an empty vessel, a mere exercise in world-building. 

To its credit, this is not a movie lacking colourful personalities. Wonder Woman remains the best thing on screen and her one-person-war-machine act is provided ample room to breathe. Gadot's exquisite appearance continues to garner laughs, but obvious athleticism and power, married with a glare that surely defines righteous certitude, are the keys to her allure.

Elsewhere, Miller and Momoa bring impressive comedy chops to bear: the younger man mixes geeky and awkward without ever becoming an irritant; Momoa's cynical, sarcastic take on things is just as welcome – one gag involving Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth is brilliantly executed. 

Unfortunately for Batman and Cyborg, the results are less favourable. While Fisher embraces his tortured soul, convincing to an extent as the brains of the operation, his backstory is bland and confusing; he never feels truly heroic. 

Affleck, too, is largely forgettable. In spite of that lantern jaw and matinee idol visage, his Wayne is little more than a pale, if expensive, imitation of Christian Bale's iconic Dark Knight. This is an older, jaded, less athletic Batman by design, far removed from the lean bleakness of Nolan's peerless triptych, but Affleck just looks bored. 

Plot wise, Justice League fails to present anything new. Multiple (not to mention disparate) supporting names from throughout the DC ecosystem crowd into the two-hour running time. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) pine for the departed Superman; urbane Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) puts his feet up and keeps Batman straight; even the Amazons of Themyscira pop up, providing the backdrop for one early, utterly unhinged chase scene involving Steppenwolf and Connie Nielsen's Queen Hippolyta.

Few of them add a great deal. In attempting to fashion a broader mythology, Snyder, alongside screenwriters Chris Terrio and Marvel stalwart Joss Whedon, is too quick to step away from the dynamics of his central band. He crowds them with extraneous exposition, attempting to pass it off as crucial context. Aquaman's backstory is blink-and-miss-it brief and the Flash is trying to get his old man out of the joint. Or something. 

The most rounded characterisation is afforded to Superman, reanimated to lend a crucial hand, with Clark Kent's appreciation for the human spirit doing just enough to sustain a sense of emotional resonance. 

That said, it's little wonder there's so much chaff, given the slight core narrative. Steppenwolf has grim designs for humanity, though his plans are realised so easily, one wonders why he waited millennia to pull the trigger on them. Ultimately, he is a forgettable adversary, a pound-shop stand-in for James Spader's Ultron in the second Avengers instalment. 

On the one hand, there is no doubting the visual delights on display and Snyder ably draws a distinction in tone between the worlds of Gotham and Metropolis. He also piles on the action, blitzing the screen with destruction and mayhem.

Yet, slick effects are surely now taken as read. A diverting shtick in its own right, the trope that sees big things exploding in style is currently as common as comic book adaptations themselves. More is needed. Unfortunately, it's not to be found here. 

Monday, 6 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Rating: 3/5

In the annals of cinematic moustaches, a number have truly stood out. John Neville’s whiskers decorated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, while Daniel Day Lewis rode his towards fortune, lunacy and an Oscar for There Will Be Blood. Clarke Gable (Gone with the Wind) and Sam Elliot (The Big Lebowski) both made solid plays for posterity, of course, and anything Tom Selleck has ever appeared in is largely remembered for the hair sprouting from his upper lip.

It is possible, however, that the bar has been reset with the arrival of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, the Belgian sleuth conjured from the imagination of mystery maven Agatha Christie. Played with particular élan by David Suchet during his 70-episode run on ITV, Poirot’s latest big-screen outing, Murder on the Orient Express, is garnished by a moustache of quite magnificent scope, vigour and daring. Like a mighty grey wave rippling across his face, this effort can't be undersold. 

Poirot’s appearance is, fortunately, far from the film’s only distinguishing mark. This is a pleasingly rendered slow-burning thriller, which benefits as much from its regard for vintage Hollywood tropes as it does from the sure hand at the controls. Both director and star, Branagh’s gifts in the two disciplines are on show as he marshals a cast bristling with star power, becalming them in snow drifts and creeping suspicion. 

Orient Express is the first Poirot feature since 1988 and the fourth adaptation of this particular tale. In it, the world-famous detective, finds himself travelling at short notice on the titular locomotive with a coterie of colourful characters including corrupt art dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp); Ratchett's flunkey, MacQueen (Josh Gad), and valet, Masterman (Derek Jacobi); Teutonic academic Hardman (Willem Dafoe); fading siren Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); sober missionary Estravados (Penélope Cruz); haughty aristocrat Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench); watchful governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); fragile Russian count Andrenyi (Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin); and English doctor Arbuthnot (Broadway fixture Leslie Odom Jr.).

When one of the passengers approaches Poirot to engage the great man as a bodyguard, he refuses, only to see an inexplicable murder and an avalanche in the Yugoslavian mountains waylay the Express. Having been begged for help by his friend, the service’s dissolute overseer, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot resolves to divine the facts.

In style, Orient Express boasts reassuring confidence and, while its plot is well worn, Branagh imbues his picture with fresh impetus. He remains a superb film-maker, as comfortable with mega-budget mainstream fare (ThorJack Ryan: Shadow RecruitCinderella) as he is staging Shakespeare.

He revels in the 1930s milieu envisioned by Christie and moulds a world laced with intrigue and elegance. The sets make bold statements of old-world luxury and class, paeans to the art deco sensibilities of a lost, gilded age. 

The framing is just as accomplished. One early exterior tracking shot watches Poirot as he progresses through the carriages, avoiding, entertaining and observing his fellow travellers as he goes. Later, with only the actors' voices and body language to convey horror or surprise, the discovery of an unseen corpse is viewed entirely from above in the narrow confines of a plush gangway. Before the end, when the identity of the malefactor slides into view, Poirot is confronted by a line-up of suspects seated before him, arranged as if in a tableau, the last supper of truth and justice.  

As with Cinderella, regular Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography soars. From its rich colour scheme – dazzling flourishes and sunsets meld with warm, oak-panelled hues and wintry shades – to an occasionally epic sense of scale, Orient Express’s complex riddle is painted on a genuinely beautiful canvas. As compelling as the central quandary might be, the glorious vistas of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Europe’s eastern reaches remind us of the silver screen’s ability to transport its viewers to destinations far beyond their own borders.

In the lead, Branagh is impossible to dislike. His iteration of Poirot constitutes a man of depth and contradictions. So extreme a perfectionist that he would rather two shoes be soiled by manure than one alone, his faintly comic air is propped up by unbending politeness and natty sartorial grace. This urbane, worldly multi-linguist spends his time giggling at the musings of Dickens and flitting between continental destinations, savouring local culture along the way. It's the stuff of Brexiter nightmares.

However, beneath that serene veneer lie nerves of steel and unimpeachable morals, attributes that come increasingly to the fore in the latter stages, as the initially frivolous atmosphere gives way to something darker. Poirot’s razor-edged intellect is stretched to breaking point in pursuit of answers that lie somewhere in the dusting of clues sprinkled throughout but it is his soul, and the idea of himself, that ultimately requires attention. 

Far from flawless, Orient Express arguably ends to soon and even imposes a vacuous, clumsy lost romance on its hero. The latter element is particularly silly, reducing Poirot to someone who seeks guidance from old photographs of people none of us know. The cast, too, sees its individual arcs unevenly served. Not one person is weak, indeed most are as watchable as one would imagine (Jacobi, in particular, excels) but a lean running time and dense narrative leave little room for memorable moments. 

Nevertheless, there is a great deal here to savour. Be it the stunning backdrops or the powerful final reveal, these strands utterly fail to disappoint. In truth, with Branagh as conductor, this train keeps to the right track.

This review was also published on Culture Northern Ireland.