Tag: Kenneth Branagh

Death on the Nile (2022)

Death on the Nile (2022)

Another all-star cast saddles up for one of Branagh’s overblown Christie adaptations

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Annette Bening (Euphemia Bouc), Russell Brand (Linus Windlesham), Ali Fazal (Andrew Katchadurian), Dawn French (Mrs Bowers), Gal Gadot (Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle), Armie Hammer (Simon Doyle), Rose Leslie (Louise Bourget), Emma Mackey (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Sophie Okonedo (Salome Otterbourne), Jennifer Saunders (Marie van Schuyler), Letitia Wright (Rosalie Otterbourne)

The tradition of luscious, all-star Agatha Christie adaptations continues. Following his successful 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh’s Poirot follow-up Death on the Nile finally makes it to the screen. I say finally, because this film has been sitting on a Covid-related shelf for so long that Branagh conceived, wrote, shot, edited, released and won awards for Belfast in the meantime. Death on the Nile is a much less personal film than that one, but is still an interesting (if flawed) re-imagining of Christie’s Belgian detective.

Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) are getting married and honeymooning in Egypt. Problem is, six weeks earlier Simon was engaged to Linnet’s old friend Jacqueline de Belfort (Emma Mackey), who has not taken being jilted well and is stalking the couple throughout their honeymoon. Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is invited to join the bash by old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), one of a host of wedding guests on a private cruise down the Nile on luxury steamer The Karnak. But Jacqueline gatecrashes the cruise and murder strikes. With almost every passenger having a motive, will Poirot manage to unpick a case that becomes a painfully personal one?

Branagh’s Death on the Nile film has many of the same flaws and strengths of his previous Poirot epic. Shot on 70mm, it’s almost excessively beautiful. In fact, the film has such a chocolate box, Sunday-afternoon feel it frequently looks almost too perfect in its blisteringly blue skies and CGI Egyptian backdrop. It’s very clear that we’re expected to wallow as much in the costumes, sightseeing and 30s glamour as the mystery. In that way at least it’s pretty close to the 1978 Ustinov version.

Fortunately, the mystery is one of Christie’s finest and its execution is handled fairly deftly. The plot is pretty faithful, although most of the character traits of the passengers are reshuffled and reassigned to create interesting new set-ups. (For example, a rich kleptomaniac takes on instead the socialist passions of a secret nobleman who instead takes the medical qualifications of a third character. Elsewhere a character is split in two into Okonedo’s jazz singer and Bening’s rich amateur painter). The insertion of the Bouc character from Murder on the Orient Express carries across an relationship that the film richly develops to give the case a greater personal impact for Poirot.

But the film, like the first, is as much a Poirot-centric character study as it is a murder mystery. It’s easy to snigger at an opening sequence which, while handsomely done and including an impressively digitally de-aged Branagh, serves as a “moustache origins” story (Poirot grew it to hide his physical and emotional scars from WW1). But it’s a launching point for an interesting exploration of Poirot’s emotional hinterland and monk-like abstinence from attachment. A particularly rich opportunity, considering the murder’s roots are in exactly the sort of all-consuming love Poirot has denied himself. It also pays off in the film’s final sequence, with clear evidence that events have led to Poirot permanently re-evaluating and changing his character.

As in the previous film, Branagh plays this with a winning mix of comedy and larger-than-life prissiness but also manages to utilise his eyes very effectively to suggest the emotion and pain his Poirot keeps firmly under the surface. The later sections of the film see Branagh play a level of overt pain that we’ve not really seen other Poirots display in the past. Expanding the character still further beyond the focused, retentive, distanced detective of Christie’s original, this is also a Poirot who expresses shame, regret and (bashfully) a schoolboy-style crush.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is a more mixed bag – who would have thought Russell Brand would be not only one of the more restrained, but also one of the most quietly affecting? Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, full of joie de vivre and later wounded, pained innocence. Brit audiences can enjoy the joke of French and Saunders playing a pair of closeted ageing lesbians. Letitia Wright is fairly good as a headstrong young woman in love. Other members of the cast engage in a scenery chewing competition, roundly won by Sophie Okonedo as a rollingly accented blues singer with most of the best lines, while Bening and Fazal struggle to bring life to their characters.

For the principal love triangle, the film suffers under the unfortunate issue of Armie Hammer’s fall-from-grace (guess he’s never going to become that star I wrote once he was destined to become). Even without that, Hammer seems oddly constrained by his British accent and fails to bring any life or passion to the role, not helped by a complete lack of chemistry with Gal Gadot who seems hopelessly at sea, trapped in flat line readings and odd bits of business. Emma Mackey by far-and-away comes out best as a young woman dripping with danger and obsession.

It’s a shame Branagh’s film constantly seems to shoot itself in the foot. Must be easy to do, since the boat is awash with guns (everyone seems to have one!) – so much so the final reveal is bungled into a three-way Mexican stand-off that completely robs the book’s brilliant denouement of its impact. The whole film is a little like this at times: as a director Branagh can be a flashy show-off whose ambition isn’t always married with the sort of effortless grace great directors bring to cinema. So, the film is crammed with tricksy, attention-grabbing shots and loud, brash moments of drama that are as likely to raise sniggers as sighs of awe.

It’s a shame as, in many ways, this is actually a little better than Murder on the Orient Express. It’s tighter (even though it’s longer!) and it creates an emotional backstory for Poirot that not only feels much less forced but actually adds something to the original story. Many of the changes in the characters actually help to make something interesting and new. If only Branagh’s films could shake the idea that we need guns, fights and sweeping CGI to invest in a Poirot story. Because, despite some weaker performances, when the film focuses on emotion and story it’s actually a fairly engaging adaptation that, while never the best, is very far from the worst.

Belfast (2021)

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh pays tribute to his early years in Northern Island in this autobiographical film

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Jude Hill (Buddy), Caitríona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), Ciarán Hinds (Pop), Lewis McAskie (Will), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Michael Maloney (Frankie West), Lara McDonnell (Moira), Gerard Horan (Mackie), Conor MacNeill (McLaury), Turlough Convery (Minister), Olive Tennant (Catherine)

Directors making films about their childhood is a well-established sub-genre. Fellini got the ball rolling, a few years ago Alfonso Cuarón made his own black-and-white look at growing up in troubled political times in Roma and this year Pablo Sorrentino has released a film focused on his own teenage years in The Hand of God. Huge admirer of Kenneth Branagh as I am, I can’t deny he’s not a unique visionary in the vein of those filmmakers. But, Belfasthas a heartfelt, genuineness and a sweetness that verges just the right side of sentimentality and is a loving tribute not only to the city he grew up in but also to his parents, making it Branagh’s most personal project since In the Bleak Midwinter and possibly his finest non-Shakespeare film.

Branagh’s substitute is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the child of a protestant family, living on a cross-community street in August 1969. His main concerns in life are friends, films, football and a classmate he has a crush on at school. But for his parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), their worries are much more about the growing sectarian violence in the city. Pa has an offer of a job in England, which could bring them a new life. But it means the whole family leaving behind it everything it has ever known, including Buddy’s beloved grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). As the city becomes more dangerous, what will the family decide to do?

If there is a memory piece Belfast reminds me of most, it’s John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. That film was true to Boorman’s memory, that growing up during the Blitz was also an exciting time, because as a child he never realised that death could be seconds away. It’s the same with Belfast. Branagh is keeps the film as much as possible from the child’s perspective. A child might be aware of the news playing on the TV, see the growing number of soldiers stopping and searching people on the streets and be wrapped up in riots, while never really understanding what exactly is going on.

The film has been unfairly attacked by some for not focusing on the accepted narratives of this era of Belfast’s history: misery, killing and brutality. What Belfast instead brings to the fore is the warm community. Streets where everyone knew your name, people sat outside their homes and chatted with neighbours, shared celebrations together and looked after each other. You can understand why it was such a wrench to leave this behind – even with soldiers patrolling the street. How scary it was for a person of any age – from Buddy to Ma, who has known nothing but Belfast her entire life – to even consider going to a place where no-one would know you and you would be an outsider.

Belfast is dedicated to those who stayed behind, those who left and all the lives who were lost. It’s a tribute to a community spirit and family, that has chimed with a great deal of people who lived in the city at the same time and place. The film is fundamentally hopeful because, under the violence and danger, it makes a plea – and demonstrates – that many people in Ireland just wanted to live their lives and didn’t care which church their neighbours went to. The opening few moments of the film is a snapshot of these halcyon days, kids from different communities playing together on the streets and their families gossiping and laughing together.

It’s shattered by the film’s first outburst of violence, as a Unionist gang attacks the street and hurl Molotov cocktails at the houses of Catholic residents – with Buddy, confused and terrified, caught in the middle and dragged into his house and safety by his frantic Ma. It’s a threat that will hang over the film for the rest of its runtime, embodied by Colin Morgan’s bullying enforcer, but only vaguely understood by Buddy – and considerably less important to him than whether he gets to sit next to the girl he has a crush on at school.

That crush is one of many things he gets advice on from his Grandad, played with a genuinely heart-warming twinkle by an Oscar-nominated Ciarán Hinds. Hinds is the picture of the perfect Grandad, wise, attentive, patient and full of homespun advice and wisdom – dialogue that Hinds brings to life with an expressive warmth. He’s paired to wonderful effect with Judi Dench (also Oscar-nominated) as Buddy’s Granny, who’s got a sharper tongue (and most of the funny lines) and has a cold-eyed realism about what it might be best for her son and his family.

You could check yourself and ask if Branagh is idealising his memories. But I think this is partly the point of the film. At several moments there is a slight air, not so much of fantasy, but of a childhood’s perception and memory being restaged. Jamie Dornan’s hard-working, caring Dad is frequently shot by Branagh in a way reminiscent of the Western heroes in the film buddy watches (High Noon in particular). A late confrontation between Dornan and Morgan plays out like a child’s romanticised memory of how something might have played out – as does a sequence where Dornan and Balfe sing and dance to Everlasting Love. I think Branagh is asking us to consider this might not be exactly what happened, but a fantasy tinged, child’s idealised memory of an event.

And Branagh’s film – shot in a luscious black-and-white – is told with a sharply edited pace and economy. It frequently allows us to see the ‘true’ situation in the background or on the edge of Buddy’s perception. Ma – beautifully played by Caitríona Balfe as grounded, moral but vulnerable and scared – has genuine worries not only about the violence but also the couple’s financial situation. There is an argument, and a later sad half-ultimatum, between Ma and Pa that we understand but Buddy is only vaguely aware is happening. Branagh’s film is full of half moments like this, where he trusts we are intelligent enough to see exactly what the child is seeing and also see more.

Branagh also draws a superb performance from Jude Hill as Buddy. This is a kid who is wide-eyed, natural, unforced and gets the balance just right between sweetness and a childish selfishness and vulnerability. There are real moments of terror and distress for Buddy, which are immensely well-done, and Branagh proves again there are few better directors of actors out there.

In among this there are some lovely moments where we see Branagh’s passion for the arts and film-making take hold. These are shown in splashes of pure colour: from clips of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which an enraptured Buddy watches in the cinema, to actors performing A Christmas Carol in the Belfast theatre appearing in perfect colour. That’s not to mention touches of everything from Westerns to Star Trek to a shot of Buddy reading a Thor comic-book (sadly no Shakespeare).

Belfast is above all warm-hearted and loving tribute from a son to his parents and the impossible decisions they needed to take to give him opportunities in life they never had. Branagh’s script is crammed with some wonderful lines and plenty of hard-earned sentiment and the cast play each of these moments to perfection. It’s a passion project that really communicates its passion and shows how love, family and hope are universal. Cynics will sneer, but it’s a lovely film.

Tenet (2020)

John David Washington has to save the world in the tricksy Tenet

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: John David Washington (The Protagonist), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Katherine Barton), Kenneth Branagh (Andrei Sator), Dimple Kapadia (Priya), Himesh Patel (Mahir), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ives), Michael Caine (Sir Michael Crosby), Clémence Poésy (Barbara), Martin Donovan (Fay), Fiona Dourif (Wheeler), Yuri Kolokolnikov (Volkov)

SPOILERS: I’ll be discussing Nolan’s film, which was kept so secretive, that even revealing what it is about might be considered a spoiler. So if you want to experience the film as intended, watch it first!

Tenet, at this rate the only blockbuster that is going to be released in 2020, was given the mission to save cinema from coronovirus. Match that with the near religious regard Christopher Nolan is held in by fans of cinema, and you had a major cinematic event on your hand. Is Tenet the second coming of cinema? Well of course not. But it is an enjoyable, if frustratingly tricksy, film shot on a jaw-dropping scale. If you ever had any doubt about whether Nolan grew up watching Kubrick intermixed with James Bond, this film dispels it.

Our entry point in the story is an unnamed character – he calls himself The Protagonist of the operation – played by John David Washington. A CIA agent, left critically injured after an operation at the Kiev Opera, is recruited to work for a mysterious organisation, Tenet. He discovers that Tenet is dedicated to preserving mankind in a war that is taking place across time. The tools of this war are “inverted” bullets and other materials. These bullets both backwards through time – explosions reform and bullets return to the guns that fired them. The Protagonist discovers that the inversion bullets are being funnelled through arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Sator is working with a faction from the future, planning to invert time in order to save their world from destruction. Sator also has access to machines that can invert people, allowing them to move physically backwards through time giving him huge advantages in forging his empire and in collecting the components of a time-inverting super weapon that will destroy all life in our present and past.

Confused? Well as characters frequently say throughout the film – don’t think about it too much. I’ve seen Nolan’s epic twice. It’s a film that revolves around Temporal Pincer Movements – military tactics that use normal and inverted people moving backwards through time. The “forward” team lives through the events. The “Inverted” team move backwards, seeing events from the end backwards, supplying real-time information to the forward team. Those carrying out a Temporal Pincer Movement know the exact timeline of what is to happen and are therefore almost unbeatable.

Watching the film twice, I realise it places the viewer in the same position. First time I was lost in the maze of the film’s rushed explanations, hand-waved time mechanics and confused by working out who was inverted and who wasn’t at any one time. Watching the film a second time, knowing the plot, I did a Temporal Pincer Movement on it myself – my “past self” who knew basically how the film ended, helped my second viewing self to understand what was happening.

So you’ve kinda got to watch it twice to understand it properly. Or at least to begin to. Second time around you also know which details are important and which to ignore, which explanations are crucial to its understanding and which are not. Second time around I noticed a lot more how characters, such as Clémence Poésy’s scientist, who introduces inversion, stress “don’t think about it too much”. The science of it all is basically a red-herring. There is talk of various predestination and grandfather paradoxes (as you might expect in a world where the future is plotting to destroy the past). Again, second time around I realised: don’t worry about it too much. 

So the question is, will people rush to see the film a second time around to understand it better? I’m not entirely sure they will. And I think that’s because, unlike Nolan’s other films, Tenet lacks heart. Here’s a man who has been praised for the ingenuity of his films going a little too far. Look back at Nolan’s other films and underneath the trickery and “timey-wimey” there is a core of a beating human heart. Inception and Interstellar, at heart, are about a man trying to reunite with his children. Memento, a man mourning the loss of his wife. Dunkirk, frightened young men trying to get home. In Tenet, there is none of this. It’s literally a film about time-scheneanigans with a huge Macguffin at the middle that will wipe out the world. The Protagonist is just what who he seems, a character who (engagingly played as he is by John David Washington, very good) we feel so little connection with that you could easily not notice we don’t learn his name.

It’s this lack of heart that really weighs the film down. How much can we really care in the end about a world-ending Macguffin so briefly explained, we just take it on trust that it’s bad? Tenet is burdened by Nolan’s slightly-too-pleased-with-itself cleverness, as events are played and replayed from multiple angles throughout the film, in a way that demands repeat viewings rather than giving the first-time viewer more knowledge in each scene. If you fall for this sort of thing, then you will fall hard. But, Nolan’s other mega-hits charmed viewers because they cared about the characters at its heart, not the elaborate tricks about time and memory. We wanted to see DiCaprio find his kids, we wanted those boys on the beach to get home – and people were happy to let other things wash over them slightly, because the emotion was how they interpreted the story. Without that heart, the film is a massive, showy trick – and a bit empty as a result.

Which isn’t to say that Nolan doesn’t shoot the hell out of it, or that the scope of it isn’t incredible. It’s where his Bond influence comes in. Because while half the time, he’s paying homage to Kubrick’s mastery and precision – or wonderfully, with its early scene of objects moving backwards and thick rubber gloves, Cocteau’s Orphée – the other half is straight out of Roger Moore. Massive bases. Huge car chases. Big shoot-outs. A Russian villain who could have walked out of Spectre and straight into the film. Flemingesque touches with the hero infiltrating the villain’s world, taking part in a sport with him. A woman at the middle who has a foot in the camps of both hero and villain. This is all Moore-era Bond, repackaged with a sprinkling of PhD Physics.

If there is a heart in the film, its Elizabeth Debicki’s abused wife of Kenneth Branagh’s lip-smacking villain. The film’s most effective character scenes revolve around this pair, and the destructive, possessive ‘love’ of Branagh’s Sator, a man must possess or destroy a person. The film captures neatly the perverted “love” Sator claims to have for a woman he abuses, beats and terrifies – and Debicki beautifully captures the mix of shame, hate and fear people in such situations often feel. Nolan must have enjoyed BBC’s The Night Manager, as Debicki repackages her role from that film almost exactly, but given the most emotional and heartfelt plotline in the film, she becomes the one character you really care about and invest in. A better film might have put her even more front and centre.

Instead though, the action around time dominates, with Nolan’s brilliantly mounted action scenes that mix forward and backward motion with staggering (and seamless) effect. It’s yet another reason to see the movie twice. The film is big, loud and demanding – often too loud, with dialogue frequently drowned out (a problem you notice less second time around when you have a much better idea about when to concentrate and when to look away). The cast do terrific work. Washington is very assured as the lead, playing with wit and grace. Debicki is a stand-out. Robert Pattinson brings a quirk and originality to a role that has very little to it on paper. Branagh has been more controversial for his Bond-tinged Russian baddie, but I found a chilling horror in his domestic abuse and selfishness that works extremely well (again particularly second time around). Pattinson brings a playfulness to an underwritten role.

Tenet may not rework cinema – and I doubt it would make a top five list of Nolan’s best films – it’s bold and challenging, if a little cold and heartless. While demanding a double viewing, it’s not quite clear if it will make you long to see it again too quickly. But if you take the effort to do so, you will find a film that grows on you more with repeated viewing – and reveals its deliberately impenetrable mysteries much better.

All is True (2018)

Kenneth Branagh plays the Bard himself in this engrossing, and rather moving, biography

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (William Shakespeare), Judi Dench (Anne Hathaway), Ian McKellen (Earl of Southampton), Kathryn Wilder (Judith Shakespeare), Lydia Wilson (Susannah Shakespeare), Hadley Fraser (John Hall), Jack Colgrave Hirst (Tom Quiney), Gerard Horan (Ben Jonson)

There are few actors alive associated as much with Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh. So it was probably only a matter of time before he played the man himself. Returning to smaller, more intimate projects after some colossal Hollywood epics, Branagh’s film is a beautifully shot, gentle and elegiac drama about loss and family life.

After the burning down of the Globe Theatre in June 1613 during a production of Shakespeare’s final play Henry VIII (otherwise known as All is True), William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon. There he must confront long-existing tensions with his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and daughters Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and Susannah (Lydia Wilson), and face the raw grief of the loss of his son Hamnet 18 years ago.

The script is intelligent and well thought out by Ben Elton, weaving a bit of fiction and sensitive theorising between the lines of what we know about Shakespeare’s final days. It makes for something that I will admit is not always awash with pace or events, but does have a quiet, magnetic emotional force that eventually casts a sort of spell.

It’s a film that gently explores the dynamics and tensions of family, and the all-pervading power of grief and how it can colour the relations between those left behind. Made worse of course by the patriarch of this family having effectively lived on another planet for the last 30 years, coming back so rarely from London that he now hardly knows the people he left behind (a sense of isolation that several skilful shots at the start establish). Especially when that patriarch is a genius, who is out of place and uncertain about where he lies in relation to the family. Nearing the end of his career, Shakespeare wants to know what it has been for and who will inherit whatever legacy he has left.

And that is particularly complex in the sense that he has no son to continue the family name, and no-one in his family (most of whom are illiterate) who can continue his artistic legacy. In death, young Hamnet has been sanctified by Shakespeare, made into a young proto-genius, a perfect son who was has set to continue his legacy. It’s blinded him to the qualities or depths of his other children, and powered an obsession in many of his later works with the loss of children. While the rest of the family have learned to set Hamnet aside, Shakespeare still mourns him as if he died yesterday – griefs that seem as tied in with the lack of future he sees ahead for his heirless family. 

So we get a series of heart-felt and universal vignettes as Shakespeare channels his loss into building a garden for Hamnet, and is eventually forced into confronting deep-rooted truths about himself and his family. The film is punctuated with his speaking to the ghost of his lost son, but he seems as unable to understand him still as he is to understand his family. His conversations with them are based around lost memories, faded past and a total inability to see the people they have become. He seems equally lost in the petty dynamics of the town, so alien to him from the larger concerns of London.

Much of this works so well as the film is so beautifully played by an exceptionally assembled cast. Branagh leads the film superbly with a restrained, quiet, contemplative performance with elements of comedy in among the sensitive touches. The make-up job takes a few beats to get used to, but once you are past that, the film focuses in on “the truth” below the surface with Shakespeare. Branagh gives Shakespeare a rich, sad inner life, a life that faces two traumas – the loss of the theatre he built, leading on to finally confronting the truths behind the loss of his son and the damage it has caused his family. Proud, intelligent, sensitive but also blind to so much, Branagh’s Shakespeare is an exquisite performance of great intellect, married to very everyday concerns.

It’s a balance that is explored in one of the film’s finest scenes, in which Shakespeare meets with the Earl of Southampton, played with scene-stealing charisma by Ian McKellen. Southampton for his part questions the Bard’s obsession with such middle-class concerns as status and money (from his comfortable position of being loaded) and clearly understands the greatness of Shakespeare in the way no one else really can. Shakespeare can’t feel in the same way that he has led a small life, and the film clearly addresses head-on his own sexual attraction to Southampton, present from the start in his giddy excitement at the Earl’s arrival. Southampton, aged, seems surprised and almost touched by Shakespeare’s continued love – gently turning him down. It’s part of the complex interior world that film explores around the poet – a man obsessed with social position and concerns of others, who was still willing to express his love for another man.

The film draws superb performances from the rest of the cast as well, with Judi Dench extremely good as the sensible, dedicated, long-suffering Anne. Kathryn Wilder is superb as Shakespeare’s overlooked daughter Judith with Lydia Wilson also fine as the more conventional Susannah. The rest of the cast are equally strong.

The film is beautifully shot, with the interiors lit with candles and the outside shots showing a marvellous inspiration from paintings that mount the film with a handsome beauty. While the film is not always blessed with pace, and has a feel at time of a sort of heritage-laced Bergman film, it carries without a certain emotional force that really ends up delivering a tender picture of difficult family dynamics and a man who has spent his life telling stories beginning to understand the story of his own life. Directed with a real measured passion from Branagh, and very well acted, there is a richness and depth to this that makes it one of Branagh’s finest films.

Othello (1995)

Laurence Fishburne falls foul of Kenneth Branagh’s schemes in this traditional but decent Othello adaptation

Director: Oliver Parker

Cast: Laurence Fishburne (Othello), Irène Jacob (Desdemona), Kenneth Branagh (Iago), Nathaniel Parker (Cassio), Michael Maloney (Roderigo), Anna Patrick (Emilia), Nicholas Farrell (Montano), Indra Ové (Bianca), Michael Sheen (Lodovico), Gabriele Ferzetti (Duke of Venice), Pierre Vaneck (Brabantio)

Othello is perhaps one of the most famous tales of betrayal and jealousy ever written. And yet Shakespeare’s tale of the noble general who descends into murder when convinced by his trusted ensign Iago that his wife is unfaithful, hasn’t often been made into a film. This is probably because its lead role requires a black actor and – for depressing historical reasons – most films aren’t considered good investments without a famous white actor in the lead (of course this has also been the case on stage). So we’ve had blacked-up performances from Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins – but this was the first proper adaptation of the play with a black actor in the lead role.

As the two leads, Laurence Fishburne and Irène Jacob are a mixed bag. Fishbourne has all the dignity and statue of the great general, and he brings a muscular physicality to the role which really works. He has a wonderful timbre to his voice and he handles the disintegration very well. He does sometimes feel a little hidebound by the language – treating the dialogue with a little too much reverence – but he’s the most believable Moorish general (for many reasons…) you’ve seen on screen so far. Jacob has greater difficulties – although many of these I think are due to this being her first film in English (talk about jumping in at the deep end) – and attempts to make Desdemona a free-spirit don’t really work that well.

Oliver Parker claimed he wanted to cast actors who weren’t associated with Shakespeare. Bizarre then that his cast is rounded out by Kenneth Branagh, the actor perhaps more associated with Shakespeare than anyone else alive. But then I guess when you can get Branagh in your movie, you aren’t going to say no. And it’s great he did, because this might just be one of Branagh’s finest Shakespearean performances: as if not also directing the thing (although many people mistakenly think he did!) freed him up to just focus on his performance. (It’s unfortunate for the other two leads that Branagh’s skill with both Shakespearean dialogue and performing it for the movies also serves to point up Fishburne’s more traditional take and Jacob’s discomfort.)

His Iago is superb, and he plays the part just right, never tipping the wink during his scenes with various characters, but playing Iago totally straight and completely genuine. He appears to be a decent, kind, lovely guy to everyone: it’s only in those asides to the camera that we see his real self, although even here he treats us with just as much charm. His Iago is the sort of guy you’d go for a drink with – and then be shocked to hear he had smilingly bad mouthed you to all your friends. Branagh also adds a homosexual undertone to the film, his Iago having incredibly mixed, repressed feelings about Othello: he seems genuinely moved when Othello makes him his lieutenant and a half twitch of regret crosses his face when the general dies.

Not that it stops him from being a bastard the rest of the time – and Parker does a very neat line in bringing the pivotal seduction of Othello to life on camera. On stage, Iago’s entrapment of Othello is a single, poison-dripping conversation – here, taking advantage of what you can do with film and editing, Parker spreads it over three locations: first a training-ground skirmish outside (where Othello bests Iago), then a sort of armoury changing room (where the outside is still visible), then finally a dungeon. As each lie gets more seductive, so Othello is literally dragged deeper and deeper into the castle. Then we get a neat flip: when he’s fully sold on Desdemona’s treachery, and begins raging and storming, we end up on huge open beaches or castle battlements, as if Othello has been reborn into a larger, refocused world.

This device smoothe out one of the problems with the original play – rather than Iago turning Othello against his supposedly beloved wife during one chat, the cuts from location to location (and different times of day) give the impression of a prolonged disintegration. Othello begins to get the first lines of each section, giving the impression that he has been dwelling on these lies in the interim, and that he is now the one bringing the subject back up, unable to stop prodding at it. It’s makes for a more convincing (and modern) psychological portrait of the corrosive triumph of jealousy than can be achieved in a traditional stage version.

The film has moments of invention – at one point Iago pours poison into Roderigo’s ear while they lie under a wagon where a couple are noisily rutting – and it does some really interesting stuff as mentioned with the “seduction” of Othello. Parker also throws in some expected cinematic tricks – so we get moments of Othello fantasising over Cassio and Desdemona together. But Parker’s not the most unique or challenging director, and he mostly shoots the film with a traditional straight forwardness, using a very traditional setting and editing style.

The film has other problems, too. Othello and Desdemona don’t have much chemistry between them, and Fishburne’s emotionally distant performance makes Othello harder to root for. Maybe this is just Branagh unbalancing the film – his Iago is so compelling, it throws off the film. Parker tries to make Desdemona a stronger character, but this doesn’t always work. Jacob’s slightly awkward tension with Shakespeare is part of this, but we also get the confusion of a Desdemona who fights for her life at the film’s conclusion and then strokes her husband’s head with affection as she dies.

Other performances don’t quite work. Michael Maloney is too overblown as Roderigo – though this Shakespearean wimp does at least get to genuinely threaten Iago and is slightly more convincing for the series of fights Iago puts him up to. Between them, the script editor and Anna Patrick turn Emilia, one of the play’s most intriguing characters, into a blank – she barely has a line in the first hour, and those she does have are delivered pretty blandly. Nathaniel Parker, though, is pretty good as Cassio (incidentally, Parker is of course the director’s brother, and Anna Patrick is the director’s sister-in-law – it’s a home movie!).

The main problem? As the play heats up to the final confrontations, the film slows right down. It’s hard to believe – as we enter Act 5 of the play – that there could still be half an hour of the film left, so snappy have the first four acts been. But the film dawdles and drags over the finishing line – and all the chase scenes of a desperately fleeing Iago can’t save it. For a film which has trimmed the play quite successfully into something sleek and fast-paced, it’s a shame that it drops all this for a wordy and over-played final half hour.

Of course Parker throws in decent moments: I like Cassio slipping Othello the knife he’ll use to kill himself. I really like Iago crawling his way on the bed loaded with dead characters, as if to try and force himself back into their story. The symbolism has been overplayed – and the image of two bodies buried at sea, water trails entwining, has been signposted far too often earlier – but these small moments work, even while the rest of the film’s conclusion drags. And maybe that’s because you don’t really care that much about Othello – he’s never seemed like a character easy to empathise with. And without that, the film can never completely work.

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Michelle Williams navigates the world of fame as Marilyn Monroe, escorted by Eddie Redmayne

Director: Simon Curtis

Cast: Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Kenneth Branagh (Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndike), Emma Watson (Lucy), Dominic Cooper (Milton H. Greene), Derek Jacobi (Owen Morshead), Dougray Scott (Arthur Miller), Toby Jones (Arthur P Jacobs), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Zoë Wanamaker (Paula Strasberg), Michael Kitchen (Hugh Perceval), Philip Jackson (Roger Smith), Simon Russell Beale (Cotes-Preedy), Robert Portal (David Orton), Jim Carter (Barry), Richard Clifford (Richard Wattis), Gerard Horan (Trevor)

In 1956 Laurence Olivier was the greatest actor in the world; Marilyn Monroe was the biggest star (and sex-symbol) in the world. Surely when they came together to make a movie, it would be cinema gold. It wasn’t. Olivier directed and starred with Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl, an almost impossibly slight puff piece, partly assembled (so rumour goes) so Olivier could sleep with Monroe. But it turned out Monroe’s fragile psyche and Stanislavkian approach to acting was incompatible with Olivier’s well-honed craft. The two did not get on.

Simon Curtis’ gentle, at times charming, but basically very lightweight film follows the making of the film through the eyes of Colin Clark. Clark, son of the famous art critic Kenneth Clark, was a naïve, romantic young man keen for a career in the movies through his father’s contacts. Hired by Olivier’s production company, Clark is tasked to take care of Monroe throughout the film. He becomes increasingly fascinated and infatuated with her as they spend more and more time together.

The film is based on Clark’s diaries, and he is played by Eddie Redmayne at his most fresh-faced. The problem with Clark is that, to be honest, rather than a young man on a journey of self-discovery, he comes across a little like a social-climbing creep and borderline stalker. Clark recounts a short-lived friendship that obviously had huge importance to him – but the film doesn’t want to deal with the fact it probably meant virtually nothing to Monroe, beyond some company during a lonely time. 

It’s not helped by the fact Clark comes across slightly like a pushy groupie, the self-proclaimed guardian of Monroe’s needs – qualifications barely justified by his actions. The film wants us to think he got closer to the magic of celebrity than anyone, but he feels like a stranger with his nose a little closer to the portcullis. Quite frankly, Colin is the least interesting character in his own story, and Redmayne fails to really give him much depth for us to engage with. Instead he remains a slightly unsettling inverted snob, manipulated by Monroe. The film, you feel, just doesn’t get this. At the end someone tells Colin he is “standing taller” than when he first met him (the implication being the relationship has made a man of him – as if spending a bit of downtime with a celebrity was the only route to emotional maturity). But rather than being part of a sweet star-crossed romance, Colin feels like someone creepily attaching himself to someone vulnerable. 

However, Michelle Williams is very good as Marilyn, capturing a real sense of her emptiness and insecurity. She perfectly captures Monroe’s physicality and vocal mannerisms. She is very good at capturing Monroe’s sense of permanent performance, of her glamour, kindness and innocence, mixed with her maddening vulnerability and (inadvertent?) selfishness. It’s a fine performance – better than the film deserves. 

Because the film is afraid of remotely criticising Monroe at all – or really engaging with the deep psychological reasons for her depression, or addressing the possibility that part of her appeal was her slight blankness that any desires could be projected onto. Instead, the film suggests, she’s sad because men just use her. Apart from Colin of course. His kissing, skinny-dipping and sharing a bed with her are entirely unmotivated by any lustful yearnings.

The film is in love with Monroe, presenting her just as Colin saw her – perfection. In fact, just as Dougray Scott’s put-upon Arthur Miller says, she was probably exhausting and all-consuming. She certainly sucks the naïve Colin into her orbit, in a way he (or the film) hardly notices or understands. It wants us to think of this as a romance – in fact, Monroe’s fragility created a neediness that meant she didn’t feel she needed to consider other people, so overwhelmingly concerned was she with her own brittleness. The film essentially believes she was a star, so is basically allowed to do what she wants. The fact that she did so with an air of gentle vulnerability means the film gives everything she does a pass.

So it’s rather hard not to sympathise with Olivier’s growing frustration with Monroe’s unreliability. Kenneth Branagh triumphs as Olivier, surely the role he was born to play: very funny, but also with a patrician charm and all-consuming arrogance. Branagh taps into Olivier’s vulnerability, his sense that he may not be able to communicate his acting strength into movie stardom, that he is yesterday’s man. For all her difficulty, Monroe had that “star quality” that makes her the centre of your attention. I’d argue Olivier almost certainly had the same – but the film is so in love with Monroe, it needs to slightly bring Olivier down. Branagh, however, is so good that he constantly punctures the film’s attempt to force Olivier into a less sympathetic role than the one it indulges Monroe with.

My Week with Marilynis far from terrible – it’s just a rather empty film. It has a terrific cast with these British star actors all offering fine pen portraits of assorted actors, producers and agents. The film however is slight, and so in love with its fairy-tale elements, it doesn’t notice that Clark’s story is slightly more creepy and certainly a lot more emotionally empty than the film wants it to be. It wants to take us behind the curtain of a 20th-century icon – instead it accidentally shows how impenetrable their screens are, and how easy it is for ordinary people to persuade themselves that the most fleeting of contacts was something special.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Daniel Radcliffe discovers dark goings on in the bowels of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Christian Coulson (Tom Riddle), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Snout), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy),  David Bradley (Argus Filch), Toby Jones (Dobby), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Julian Glover (Aragog)

Another movie, and time for another everyday school year for Harry and friends: classes, exams, sports days and saving the entire population of the school from a grisly death. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it right? So welcome to the second Harry Potter film, that mixes the fun of flying cars and tricky elves with giant spiders and ferocious snakes.

Chris Columbus and team went virtually straight from the first film into making this one, and it’s pretty clear they had learned a lot from the last one. Sure, Columbus is still a safe pair of hands rather than an inspired director, but there is a bit more flair from cast and crew here. It also manages to look a lot less like a primary colour explosion or an illustrated version of the book, and more like a piece of film-making. Maybe this can be attributed to new cinematographer Roger Pratt, who gives the film a far more imaginative palette of darks blacks mixed with beautiful core colours (no surprise he returned to shoot Goblet of Fire). In addition, both design and costumes are far more adult and less Dickensian-robey than I remembered (though there’s still a way to go until we get to the steampunk 50s look of Prisoner of Azkaban that would dominate the rest of the films).

It also helps that the introduction to the wizarding world was covered so well in the first film. In fact, this is the last film where anyone felt it necessary to shoe-horn recaps into the dialogue, reminding us of who (and what) everything is. A particular moment of irritance for me is the first entry of Dumbledore and McGonagall: met with Harry breathlessly saying their names – just in case you were one of those people who didn’t contribute to the $1billion the first film made worldwide, or who hadn’t read any of the books by this point.

Anyway, Columbus got the principles out of the way in the first film so he could focus a bit more on this slightly darker, more developed story (just as Rowling was able to do in the books). The mystery of the Chamber of Secrets is more compelling than that around the Philosopher’s Stone in Potter’s first outing, and this is the film where we properly meet the series antagonist Voldemort – here played with a smarmy, casual cruelty by Christian Coulsen (it’s a shame this didn’t lead to bigger things for Coulsen). Radcliffe gets the chance to get his teeth into a decent final confrontation – and also the series’ first big action set-piece, quite well-shot with a creepy menace – as he takes on a basilisk.

In fact Radcliffe is much stronger in this movie – more relaxed, more confident and embracing Harry’s essential decency and sense of honour (the qualities that are always duller to play as an actor). He’s still struggling a bit at the moments that call for real emotion – but he does very well here indeed. Most importantly, you believe him and everything he does – which is quite something for a child actor to accomplish. 

He gets more depth and range to play with than Rupert Grint who was already being shoehorned into being gurning comic relief. There are few faces Grint isn’t asked to pull in this movie – and get used to that sad-sack downward grin, or the teeth-clench of terror, because these are going to become major weapons in his arsenal. Watson doesn’t actually get a lot in this movie, but even by this point it was becoming clear that she was pretty much a perfect fit for the character. 

The series also confirmed it had great roles for the cream of British acting – and that it was going to be a fine pension plan for most of Equity. Jason Isaacs plays the wicked Lucius Malfoy with relish and a scowling, patrician pride – no wonder he became not only a regular in the series, but one of its champions. He’s very good here indeed, as is other new addition Mark Williams, a perfectly charming shambolic dad as Arthur Weasley.

The show however is carried off by Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh offers a performance close to of self-parody of his public perception, as a swaggering self-promoter, a preening egotist who can’t help but brag about his (almost non-existent) achievements and accomplishments. Branagh is deliriously funny as Lockhart, not only getting a lion’s share of the best scenes, but also bringing out some delicious comic rebuttals from the rest of the teachers – not least Rickman and Smith – who clearly can’t stand Lockhart. It’s a great performance – cocky, old-Etonianesque, full of surface charm and puffed up pride, but with a nasty selfish mean steak just below the surface.

It all feels part of the generally more free and engaging direction this film takes compared to the first one. Some of the best actors from the first film get relegated in screentime, but it shows the greater confidence the filmmakers have in the kids. The film really begins to introduce the ideas of good vs evil and the principles of friendship, humanity and love that differentiate Harry from Voldemort. Columbus isn’t quite the director to bring all this together into an epic vision, but he is good enough to deal the cards effectively. He gives it enough pace and shine so that we are never bored, though we’re also never wowed.

Despite the increased darkness and greater emotional depth, Columbus never loses track of the sense that he is making a family entertainment. He may still not be able to bring an artistic flourish to events, but he balances the light and dark very well. Not least the fact that the racism under the surface of the wizarding world emerges here. In the first film Voldemort alone was the villain, but in this one we first hear the term “mud blood” bandied about to describe Muggle-borns. We also find out that the wizarding world has its own slave class in elves (given a sometimes irritating Jar-Jar Binks-lite face by Dobby, a character with far more appeal to the kids than the parents). These are complex ideas – and all part of the world becoming richer.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still in the lower tier of Harry Potter films, but it’s a significant step-up from the first film. Visually it’s richer and more interesting. The stakes are higher, the themes deeper and more intriguing. It’s still very much a children’s film, and it still inclines towards being an over-faithful adaptation – it’s a bum-numbing 2 hours and 40 minutes so keen is it to not leave anything out – but this has far stronger material in it than the first film, and is a sure sign that this series was building a foundation it could flourish from.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson triumph in this brilliant adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Benedick), Emma Thompson (Beatrice), Denzel Washington (Don Pedro), Michael Keaton (Dogberry), Keanu Reeves (Don John), Richard Briers (Leonato), Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio), Kate Beckinsale (Hero), Gerard Horan (Borachio), Imelda Staunton (Margaret), Brian Blessed (Antonio), Ben Elton (Verges), Jimmy Yuill (Friar Francis), Richard Clifford (Conrade), Phyllida Law (Ursula)

Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing was his second Shakespearean directing gig, but his fourth film – and it’s clear from the first frame what a confident director he has become. Much Ado is one of the best Shakespeare films ever made, and certainly the greatest film version of a Shakespearean comedy, largely because it’s not only charming and hugely enjoyable but also actually funny – a pretty rare feat for any filmed version of a Shakespeare comedy.

From the opening you pretty much know you are in safe hands. Branagh loves the vibrant excitement of cinema, and delights in bringing the meaning out of Shakespeare’s text. Both ideas are central to the opening of the film, with Emma Thompson’s luscious reading of “Sigh No More”, while the camera pans across a bucolically blissful Tuscan setting. This feeds straight into Beatrice’s playful banter with the messenger – and Richard Briers gives the first indication of the film’s attention to small character details with his “don’t go there” look when the messenger tries to correct Beatrice’s teasing defamation of Benedick. From there the film explodes into a triumphant Magnificent Seven style arrival of Pedro’s lords on athletic horseback (backed by Patrick Doyle’s inspiring overture), while Leonato’s household excitedly (in a typical Branagh tracking shot) prepare to greet them, before an overhead crane shot introduces the two groups meeting in a courtyard. Everything you need to know about the sort of film you are getting – and Branagh’s ability to marry the language of cinema with the language of Shakespeare – is right there.

Branagh’s setting of the play in a golden Tuscan villa is perfect for both its playful, relaxed, soldiers-back-from-the-war plot line and the heated romances and jealousies that fuel the plot. Is it any surprise feelings are running high in such a sultry and hot climate? The two worlds – the army men and the people of Leonato’s household – are immediately clear. And the setting communicates the film’s mood – fundamentally bright, sunny, cheerful. Kick back your heels, you are being taken on a high-spirited, exotic holiday.

In this playful setting, Branagh invariably gets the tone just right. Shakespearean comedy is so reliant on live audience reactions, on bouncing off the audience, that creating this on film without that live element is really difficult. Trust me, watch any number of BBC Shakespeare comedies (don’t worry I’ve done it for you) and you will see immediately how hard it is to get that bounce and comedic juice out of these shows. Branagh gets it spot on here – the characters are so likeable, the delivery of the actors so assured, the spirit of the film so light yet perfectly controlled, that the comedy lands nearly every time. Above all, the actors look like they had a whale of a time making the film – and that enjoyment completely communicates to the audience.

The gulling scenes of both Beatrice and Benedick are expertly played and hugely entertaining: Branagh skilfully cuts them to fast-paced essentials, and then gets the best possible comic mileage out of them – from skilled cut-away shots for reactions to wonderful ensemble playing (Briers in particular is superb as a Leonato slightly out of his depth in trickery). It’s easy for the Beatrice gulling scene to fall a little short after the Benedick one – but, largely thanks to Emma Thompson’s excellent performance, that certainly doesn’t happen here.

But Branagh understands Much Ado is not just a comedy: it comes perilously close to being a tragedy. For at least an act of the play, our heroes are at loggerheads, and murder and death are almost the end results. From Claudio’s explosively violent reaction to Hero’s perceived betrayal at the wedding to Leonato’s furious denunciation, horror and danger are ever-present. This then leads us into Beatrice and Benedick’s wonderful post-wedding. Branagh sets this in a small chapel – adding an echo of marriage vows to the understanding the pair reach – and Thompson’s passion, fury and pain are met (for the first time) with quiet, mature understanding from Branagh’s Benedick. Thompson’s order for Benedick to “kill Claudio” carries a fiery conviction that chills. It’s a brilliant scene.

A lot of this works so well because of the brilliance of the acting. Branagh is charming, very funny and mixes this with a growing emotional depth and maturity as Benedick. But the film belongs to Emma Thompson who is quite simply astounding as Beatrice – surely one of the greatest performances of the role you will catch. She is the soul of the movie, at turns playful, frustrated, joyous and consumed with grief and rage. She speaks the lines (needless to say) with absolute clarity and emotion, but even more than that her intelligence dominates the movie. You can’t take your eyes off her.

But this is a very strong cast of actors, the best mix Branagh got between Hollywood stars and his regular players. Denzel Washington is simply perfect as the noble but strangely distant Pedro (his moments of isolation at the close of the film are as touching as they are unsurprising). Richard Briers gives some of his best work in a Branagh film as a Leonato, moved to great emotion and feeling. Leonard and Beckinsale are perhaps not given huge amounts of interpretative depth, but are very lovable. Gerard Horan is very good as a swaggering Borachio.

It’s easy to knock Keanu Reeves but – aside from his untrained voice, which makes him sound duller and flatter than he actually is – his Don John is actually pretty good. As a physically very graceful actor he completely looks the part, and he glowers and fumes with all the intensity you could require – and after all, Shakespeare didn’t give Don John much more to do than that.

No the real problems with the production – and the parts that don’t work – are Dogberry and Verges. Now I can see what Branagh is trying to do here: the malapropisms of Dogberry’s dialogue are rarely, let’s be honest, that funny, and would work even less well on film. But the decision to make Dogberry and Verges a cross between Monty Python and the Three Stooges doesn’t really work. Michael Keaton is giving it his all here to try and get some humour out of this – but his straining for every laugh, combined with gurning over delivery, bizarre accent and physical over-complications, just deaden every single Dogberry scene. These scenes largely flop.

But it doesn’t matter when every other scene in the film works so damn well. And, however much you might drift away during the Dogberry moments, the rest of the film will capture your heart and mind every time. Filmed with a luscious richness and stylish confidence, this is a ravishing and flamboyant film that will never fail to entertain. By the time the final reconciliation has happened, and the house erupts into a joyous celebration party – filmed, with astonishing chutzpah, as a single take, staggering in its complexity, that covers close-up, tracking shot and huge crane shot – while Patrick Doyle’s score gives a swelling version of Sigh No More, you’ll be in love yourself. And if not – well look to yourself.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Chris Pine comes out from behind the desk to head into the field in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), Keira Knightley (Cathy Muller), Kevin Costner (Commander Thomas Harper), Kenneth Branagh (Viktor Cherevin), Len Kudrjawizki (Konstantin), Alec Utgoff (Aleksandr Borovsky), Peter Andersson (Dimitri Lemkov), Elena Velikanova (Katya), Nonso Anozie (Embee Deng), Colm Feore (Rob Behringer), Gemma Chan (Amy Chang), Mikhail Baryshnikov (Minister Sorkin)

Jack Ryan is the all-American, ordinary-analyst-turned-CIA Agent at the centre of the late Tom Clancy’s books. He’s been played by a range of actors, from Alec Baldwin to Ben Affleck via Harrison Ford, but his character remains the same – a boy scout, a man of principle and simple courage, pushed to do what must be done. He’s smart and quick-witted. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was meant to serve as another reboot, to restart the Jack Ryan franchise after a mixed reception to Ben Affleck’s The Sum of All Fears. Sadly, it was another false start.

An origins story, it opens with Ryan (Chris Pine) studying at the LSE, before joining the marines in the wake of 9/11. He is critically injured in a helicopter crash, where he hauls two men from the wreckage while suffering from a broken back. Learning to walk again, he falls in love with Dr Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley) and is recruited as a financial analyst by Thomas Harper (an effectively gruff but charismatic Kevin Costner) from the CIA’s Department of Making-Sure-We-Don’t-Get-Hit-Again (catchy name). Collecting financial intelligence while working as an auditor at a Wall Street firm, he notices some worrying financial deals from funds controlled by Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Going to Moscow under the guise of auditing Cherevin, he and Cathy quickly find themselves embroiled in a dangerous terrorist conspiracy.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is decent fun. It’s also a rather impersonal and safe piece of film-making, that structurally and creatively feels like a 1990s action film reset in the 2010s. In a world of Jason Bourne, it genuinely feels a little old-fashioned and uninspired. It takes recognisable elements from dozens of action films and remixes them with a certain flair, but not a lot of imagination. It feels like the least “Branagh” film Branagh has directed, the camerawork being surprisingly restrained and contained considering his love of sweeping opera and dynamic, showy visuals.

But Jack Ryan is not a bad film, it’s just an enjoyably average one. It puts Ryan front-and-centre of the film, and Chris Pine really delivers in establishing Ryan’s old-fashioned principles of right and wrong, his sense of duty and his willingness to do what needs to be done when called. Pine also does a great job of demonstrating Ryan’s fear and panic as he finds himself increasingly out of his comfort zone – not least in a terrifying hotel bathroom brawl with an under-used Nonso Anonzie – in the aftermath of which he drops his mobile while trying to call for backup, and then can’t remember where the hell “Location Gamma” is when told to report there to meet a contact.

Of course, this incarnation of Ryan as an analyst rushed into the field doesn’t last, and the film succumbs from there to turning Ryan into an old-school action man, the sort of guy who drives cars at 85 mph through Moscow streets with ease, jumps on a motorbike and roars off in pursuit of a bomb with maverick self-assurance and takes on a trained assassin with a Die Hard-ish confidence. It’s a shame that the interesting character work of the first 2/3rd of the movie gets lost in the final third – but it’s another sign of the film delivering what it feels an action film should be rather than finding something unique and original.

At least Pine gets some good material to work with, which is more than can be said for Kiera Knightley. For all her American accent, this is Knightley at her most British Rose, her toothy, coy grin ever-present in every scene – and that’s about all she contributes. Not that this is entirely her fault, since Cathy is a character sketched on a fag packet, a successful doctor who obsessively worries that her husband is having an affair, making her feel weaker and needier than the filmmakers perhaps realise Later she exists to be a Damsel in Distress, and is then given a spurious involvement in identifying the villain’s target – which she identifies not because it is a medical facility she is familiar with, or perhaps somewhere she visited as a child or on a professional call-out, but solely because Her Man works there. (As if these CIA geniuses couldn’t work out that a financial terror attack on the US might be targeting Wall Street).


The villain’s plot is dully labyrinthine, but can be safely boiled down into having something to do with financial chicanery and a bombing attack, to destroy the US economy. Not that it really matters – it allows a suitable mix of booms, bangs and the sort of tense “breaking into the office to download the files against the clock” sequence that you’ve seen several times before. Kenneth Branagh cuts himself a bit short with Cherevin, a character who seems sinister but is really barely competent and hits every villain trope from pervy leering to executing an underling. We barely get any sense of his motivations or his background.

He’s also probably the only Russian nationalist in the world who is a Napoleon Bonaparte fan. Last time I checked, Napoleon was the enemy in the War of 1812 that redefined Russian history for the next 100 years. But then I’ve read a few Napoleonic era books, so I’m biased… This film clearly knows nothing about Bonaparte, with Ryan declaring at one point that the planned attack is “straight out of Napoleon’s playbook” – how Napoleon’s trademark fast movement and combined use of infantry and artillery, drilled to perfection, relates to a basic distraction strategy I don’t know but never mind. But then this is a dumb action film that name checks Napoleon because you’ve probably heard of him, rather than because it makes sense.

There is a lot to groan at, or say meh to, in Jack Ryan. But yet, I’ve seen it three times and it grows on me each time. Chris Pine is a very likeable screen presence, and the build-up of the film works well. Branagh directs it with a taut efficiency, even if it’s a film that lacks any real inspiration and feels like one for the money. But it presents its 1990s-style action beats with enough conviction and sense of fun that you kinda go with it. Yes it’s totally forgettable, but run with it and you’ll find yourself strangely charmed by it.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

A dishevelled Kenneth Branagh (and tache) investigates a Murder on the Orient Express

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff), Johnny Depp (Samuel Ratchett), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Derek Jacobi (Edward Masterman), Leslie Odom Jnr (Dr Arbuthnot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Andrenyi), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Andrenyi), Miranda Raison (Sonia Armstrong)

Is there a murder mystery with a more widely known resolution than Murder on the Orient Express? Possibly not – if for no other reason that film and television versions of this story are as numerous as the suspects in the actual mystery. If that wasn’t a big enough challenge for Branagh to take on, he also joins a list of umpteen actors to play Poirot himself: following in the (very precise) footsteps of the big guns: Finney, Ustinov and of course, above all, David Suchet. How does his version of this most famous detective in his most famous adventure measure up? Well, with mixed results.

For those who don’t know, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is “possibly the world’s greatest detective”. Here, he is travelling back from Istanbul  on the Orient Express, a berth having being secured at the last minute by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) the director of the line. En route he is approached by the sinister Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who asks if he can serve as his bodyguard. Poirot refuses – only for Ratchett to be murdered that night. Bouc asks Poirot to investigate – and it soon becomes clear that the dozen other passengers in Ratchett’s carriage could all have had motives to kill him. But who is the killer?

Murder on the Orient Express is on the cusp of being a very good film. But, like the train itself, it gets bogged down too often in changes from the source material that add nothing, action scenes that feel toe-curlingly out of place, and bombastic filming that goes a little bit too far. In many ways it captures some of the faults of its director, my much-loved hero Kenneth Branagh – and I do love him, but as a director he has a tendency to make things too big, to wear his love of the complex shot on his sleeve; to basically try too hard. As a director, that’s what it feels like he’s doing here.

It’s filmed with a luscious, chocolate box, old-school Hollywood grandeur. The camera swoops and zooms over some gorgeous landscape as the train puffs through snowy mountain scenery. There are some loving travelogue tracking shots of Istanbul and Jerusalem. The film lingers with a loving eye on the luxury and class of the Orient Express itself (including some egregiously clunky product placement). The costumes look lovely.  But the end result of all this lavish filming is that it sometimes goes too far towards the reassuring, Boxing-Day-afternoon treat. 

Everything is a little too technicolour at points. It also means that some of Branagh’s more self-consciously tricksy camera work stands out a little too much. A “birds-eye” view of the discovery of the body (the camera above the heads of the actors looking straight down) is oddly disconnecting – it works a lot better when Poirot and Bouc examine the crime scene, giving the audience a god like view of the scene. Some overly complicated shots swoop up along the aqueduct where the train is stuck, past Poirot speaking to characters, then over the top of the train. It’s a rather too overblown and clumsy attempt to make a conversation seem cinematic – it feels a little forced.

It’s one of many points where the film feels like it is trying too hard to make the story edgier or more overtly cinematic. Not the least of these are sequences that up the action quotient. I feel very confident this is the first Poirot film you’ll ever see where the hero is involved in not one but two dynamic fights. One of these is a bizarre chase down the aqueduct with Poirot and another character. The second involves gunfire (an effective shock to be fair) and Poirot using his cane as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat. 

There is nothing wrong with making Poirot more active – Branagh’s character is very much the ex-soldier and policeman, busting open the door to Ratchett’s berth to investigate, walking over the train’s roof, brow-beating the odd suspect (at one point at gun point). It’s just all too much – what audience is this playing to? Who really goes to a Poirot film expecting a goddamn fight scene? Even Count Andrenyi is introduced ninja-kickboxing photographers (I’m not joking here) – is this really what Agatha Christie would have wanted?

There are some odd choices made to deepen Poirot’s character. He is given some sort of lost romantic interest – no less than four times in the film he is given scenes where he holds a photo and bemoans “mon cher Kat-a-rean”. In the opening sequence, Poirot’s love of symmetry is introduced by him accidentally stepping in a cow pat and then stepping in it with his other foot to make each equal. Not only does a “stepping in shit” joke seem wildly out of place, but I don’t believe someone as fastidious and observant as Poirot would even step in it in the first place, let alone choose to step into it twice.

The train doesn’t just stop, it’s nearly taken out by an avalanche. A knife isn’t just discovered, it’s literally found stabbed into a character’s back. Characters have been changed to allow a more diverse cast – which I applaud – but making Arbuthnot a soldier turned doctor is a change that makes very little sense. The claustrophobia of the original is lost by having workers turn up almost immediately to dig the train out. Several scenes are filmed outside, with workers surrounding the train digging it out. Some of these undermine the original or are a little silly.

The suspect assemble

But I’m being really hard on this film because there are major flashes of promise here. Not least in Branagh’s performance as Poirot. I’m very confident in saying that, after David Suchet of course, this is the second best Poirot committed to film. The first thing anyone will notice is of course the moustache. Yes it looks absurd, but you attune to it quickly. It’s also a plot point: Poirot uses it, and his eccentricities, to lure people (Columbo style) into a false sense of security. When the film relaxes into just letting Poirot investigate (and hues closer to the original), Branagh gives Poirot a warm humanity and gentleness. His eyes are a wonder – intense disks of sadness. 

Branagh gives Poirot a love of order and justice that defines his world view – and the film introduces a moral conundrum for Poirot in the solution of the crime. I would say David Suchet’s TV version did this better – stressing Poirot’s Catholicism and belief in the rule of law as major factors that conflict him when confronted with the solution. But Branagh captures a real sense of Poirot’s conflict (even if the solution reveal is overplayed and overshot – right down to a “last supper” style tableaux in a railway tunnel) and his sadness, confusion and decency are really lovely – there is even a very neat touch with him forgetting to straight and smarten his appearance, as he deals with the ramifications of his solution to the murder. He looks like cartoon character, but he makes Poirot a real man. I would definitely like to see him do the role again.

The rest of the all-star cast rather struggle for crumbs, as the focus remains solidly on Poirot (largely because the film is intended as the possible first in a series). Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, charming and endearing but also given a character arc that sees him develop and change. Of the stars, Depp is suitably grimy as Ratchett, Pfeiffer imperiously stylish and skittish as Hubbard and Odum Jnr affecting as Arbuthnot. I was very taken with Daisy Ridley’s Mary Debenham, a young charm hiding steel underneath. Dafoe, Dench, Colman, Jacobi and the rest are given little to do but are reliably excellent when they are. Others like Cruz feel wasted. 

When the film focuses on Poirot simply investigating, it is very good. Each interrogation of the passengers is brilliantly played by Branagh – Poirot subtly adjusting his methods and approach depending on the person he is talking to. Poirot’s introduction sequence in Jerusalem has a playful Sherlock feel to it: Poirot solving a crime in seconds (having been dragged from his hotel, where he pickily demands eggs that are perfectly equal), including accurately predicting how the criminal will try and escape. There are lots of lovely moments – but just when you settle down to enjoy it, something wildly over-the-top or silly happens.

Murder on the Orient Express is by no stretch of the imagination a bad movie. In some places, it’s charming and a lot of fun. If it’s designed for watching on a bank holiday afternoon it works very well. But it’s, at best, the third best version of this story on film (after the 1974 Lumet film and the Suchet TV version). Do we really need to watch the third best version of an already familiar story? If we could transplant Branagh’s performance into Lumet’s film, now that would be something. But as it is, we’ve got a decent if flawed film that just tries too hard to do too much.