A good whodunit never gets stale.
Which is possibly one of the reasons why Kenneth Branagh is pulling double duties on a new movie version of Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s 1934 thriller.
Up ’til now the ultimate version of the tale was the 1974 film directed by Sidney Lumet with an all-star cast that included – wait for it – Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Sir John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave. Albert Finney played Hercule Poirot.
The update, due next year, sees Branagh directing and playing the moustachioed Belgian detective. But it’s the ensemble cast that’s garnering attention. Hollywood heavyweights Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer have already signed on, along with Sir Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi Dench for added lustre.
Branagh is a huge fan of York-born Dame Judi. They recently worked together in a filmed stage production of The Winter’s Tale. He described her character as “an incredibly strong, feisty, intelligent, passionate, sharp-edged, sharp-witted woman”. He could, of course, have been referring to his co-star. Of Dench he remarked, “Judi was earthy, sexy, smart, funny and also heart-breaking.” Not a bad summing up of a woman nudging 82 years old.
Branagh has always been drawn to talent. His early Shakespearian films were scattered with the greats whilst he, as the young pretender, brought vim, vigour and a fresh eye. Now he’s doing it again. Of Christie’s book he says, “It’s a great story. Agatha Christie really knew how to write a cracking yarn: psychological thriller, 12 possible suspects trapped in a very, very dangerous place. The possibility of doing that with a great cast was very attractive.”
Appearing on TV as Wallander may well have given Branagh a taste for solving crimes. The timeless appeal of Christie’s book proves that audiences are still crying out for complex, convoluted, deep, dark and dangerous tales. What’s more there is the notion that talent attracts talent. One can imagine some of cinema’s great stars scrabbling to call their agents if they see the chance of playing a scene with Dame Judi.
The trick for Branagh, and for Lumet all those years ago, is in giving equal time to his various stars. Each gets a chance to shine.
And in the confined space of that train carriage, speeding through the snow towards its destination and the solving of a mystery, there is something terribly attractive about being a suspect and sharing shifty looks and secrets with one of the great stars of stage, screen and TV.