Tag: Michelle Pfeiffer

Scarface (1983)

“Shay hell-o to my leetle friend!” Al Pacino puts it all out there in Scarface

Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Al Pacino (Tony Montana), Steven Bauer (Manny Ray), Michell Pfeiffer (Elvira), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gina), Robert Loggia (Frank Lopez), Miram Colon (Mama Montana), F. Murray Abraham (Omar), Paul Shenar (Alejandro Sosa), Harris Yulin (Detective Bernstein), Mark Margolis (Shadow)

Remember when Al Pacino played the softly spoken, chillingly self-contained Michael Corleone? Watching The Godfather, who could have imagined that performance would be the outlier in a career that gleefully embraced the insanely OTT in a way few other great actors have dared. And possibly no other performance in Pacino’s career was as large as in Scarface, a ball of nervous energy, foul-mouthed aggression and drug-fuelled instability, the burning heart at the centre of Brian de Palma’s wildfire of a film. Scarface dials every single thing up to about 11 and then some, becoming the director’s brashest and most enduring work – but it owes everything to Pacino’s furious, unreserved energy at its centre.

Pacino plays Tony Montana, a working-class crook from Cuba dispatched (along with boatloads of undesirables from Castro’s regime) to Miami in the early 80s. There, in refugee camps and the local community, it’s crime and violence that give these guys the best chance of grabbing a share of the American Dream. Montana is no different, graduating from hits to drug deals and swiftly moving up the chain with his determination, gruff no-nonsense attitude, fierce loyalty and ruthless focus. But once you hit the top and the world is yours, there is really only one way to go – back down again, made easier when you are hooked on snorting mountains of your own product, incestuously in love with your sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and your increasing arrogance and unreliability put you on the wrong side of your partners and kingpins in South America.

A remake of the 1932 original by Howard Hawks (the film is dedicated to Hawks and the scriptwriter Ben Hecht), Scarface is a brash, unsettling, nervy and incredibly violent cartoon-style gangster movie that owes almost its entire legacy to Pacino’s snarling wit at the centre. Is Pacino taking the piss here with this performance? Surely, he must have wondered if he could get away with it. This is a whirlwind tour-de-force, Pacino throwing himself into it with nothing left in the locker-room. He delightedly wraps his vocal chords around a thick Cuban accent (turning words like cockroach into a three syllable delight – “Cock-ah-roatch”) and embraces his small stature by turning Tony into a little pressure cooker. Seemingly incapable (bar one scene) of staying still, he’s supremely tense, his shoulders hunched up, his teeth on edge, voice growling.

It gives the film an unpredictable energy, because you don’t know what Pacino the performer will do any more than the characters do. He’ll suddenly throw you off with a moment of silence, just as often as he will blast your eardrums with a roar of anger. Emotionally Tony is a complete mess. His obsession with his sister is obvious, a devotion that Tony seems to only half (if that) understand is sexual in nature. But he also has a slight homoerotic bond with best friend Manny Ray (Steven Bauer – the only actor of Cuban heritage in the film), their closeness and macho-posturing carrying more than a whiff of Top Gun-ish “he protests too much”.

Pacino also invests Tony with strangely sympathetic qualities. Sure he’s a violent and ruthless killer and dedicated criminal, but he’s also got a firm sense of loyalty and certain moral lines he won’t cross. He’s got no time for bullshitters and respects only strength and honesty – watch the scene where he brutally talks over the weasely Omar (F. Murray Abraham – jetting back and forth between shooting this and Amadeus for goodness sake!) during a negotiation with drug lord Sosa – he has no respect or regard for his more politically minded boss, only for straight-talking that makes a deal.

It’s all this that ends up making Tony an anti-hero the viewer sort of ends up liking – even while he dopes himself to the brim with coke and funnels piles of it onto the street (not that we see any of that). Tony is a violent killer, but he’s a sort of honest man, a monster yes but a public one that we enjoy seeing. Tony himself recognises this, calling out a crowd of people in a posh restaurant for treating him as a monster so that they can feel better about themselves (slightly undermined by the fact he’s coked to the eyeballs, incoherent and has brutally ended his marriage a second earlier).

So much is Tony a force of nature that, hilariously, it feels like many of the fans of the film – bling gangsters and wannabe street punks – miss that this film is a brutal satire of the culture of excess and greed. Tony’s life falls apart the more money he gets, his addictions and problems growing as his wealth does. He’s an instinctive, but not wise, man who builds a household of fantastic excess and tasteless ostentation (surely, like Saddam, his taps are gold-plated) but also manages to destroy his business and life in a few months due to his greed, stupidity and self-destructive streak.

The things that made him a high-riser are lost the more Tony surrounds himself with garish status symbols. Inevitable destruction walks hand-in-hand with Tony’s “more is more” attitude. The more he attempts to add class and polish to his life, the more he demonstrates his own lack of both qualities. Also, as he gets more obsessed with pointless status symbols he loses the very skills – honesty, energy, shrewdness – that made him a kingpin in the first place. Instead he becomes a drug-fuelled narcissist, making impulsively stupid decisions and wrecking everything he spent the first half of the film building up. Tony Montana is the face of a certain type of Reagan/Thatcher economics, where private enterprise rolls in and ruthlessly takes and takes, with no regard for the impact on other people and no interest in sustainability.

De Palma captures this pretty well – although he probably ends up making this satire of excess more of a hubristic tragedy. Largely because the film falls so hard for Tony – or rather Pacino – that the fact that Tony is, despite his own moral code, a pretty reprehensible person can be easily lost. Not that de Palma probably cares that much, since his main aim here seems to be to create a hell of a ride. And there are some great set-pieces, and some wonderfully character beats – not least a sequence where Tony seizes control of the empire from weak boss Robert Loggia and sinister corrupt cop Harris Yulin.

The film certainly does that, flying from set-piece to set-piece so swiftly and with such a sense of pace and shark-like momentum, you almost don’t notice that it runs for as long as it does. Every few minutes gives us a scene with stand-out moments of either Pacino grandstanding, shocking violence or both. Scarfaceis a very violent film – everything from chain saws to bullets are used to pull gangster bodies apart – and while it has a sort of moral message (“Excess is bad”) it’s really just an excuse like Cecil B DeMille to make us feel good about ourselves by watching someone pretty bad (but with a few redeeming qualities) dance like a bear for two and a bit hours doing terrible things (entertainingly) before being carved down in a hail of bullets as the devil comes round to collect.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Glenn Close and John Malkovich play games of lust and sex in Dangerous Liaisons

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Glenn Close (Marquise Isabelle du Merteuil), John Malkovich (Vicomte Sébastian de Valmont), Michelle Pfeiffer (Madame Marie du Tourvel), Uma Thurman (Cécile de Volanges), Swoosie Kurtz (Madame de Volanges), Keanu Reeves (Raphael Danceny), Mildred Natwick (Madame du Rosemonde), Peter Capaldi (Azolan), Valerie Gogan (Julie)

Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Les liaisons Dangereuses had been a stunning success in the West End and on Broadway – so a film adaptation of this lusciously set story of sex was inevitable. Stephen Frears’ film keeps the story grounded in its setting of pre-Revolutionary France, but deliberately encourages a modern looseness, even archness, from its actors that makes it feel grounded and modern.

The Marquise du Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) are two French aristocrats who fill their time with seductions and sexual manipulation of other people, while conducting a dance of attraction around each other. Du Mertuil wants revenge against her ex-lover by getting Valmont to seduce the lover’s innocent intended bride Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). But Valmont is more interested in setting himself the challenge of seducing the unimpeachable Madame du Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) – du Merteuil so convinced the task will be impossible that she bets him if he seduces du Tourvel, she will sleep with him as well. These games of sexual manipulation develop with disastrous consequences for all involved, as unexpectedly real emotions of love and affection intrude on the heartlessness and contempt.

Frears’ film won three Oscars for its most striking elements: production design, costumes and Hampton’s script. Hampton’s script provides a series of striking scenes and tongue-lashing dialogue for its stars. Meanwhile the film looks marvellous, it’s use of French locations superb in creating the world of decadence that these characters move in, while the costumes are so strikingly, elaborately intricate they practically become characters themselves. The film opens and closes with scenes of dressing and de-dressing: the opening sequence shows Merteuil and Valmont being dressed in their elaborate finery, a sequence uncannily reminiscent of knights being dressed for war, ending with shots of their defiantly cold faces starring down the lens. The film bookends this with the film’s key survivor, brokenly wiping away from their made-up “public face” probably forever. It’s a film that uses the intricacy of the period, to strongly suggest modern, dynamic tones and emotions. 

The film is shot with a series of tight shots, intermixed with the odd long shot, that is designed to bring us in close with the film’s serial seductions and envy-powered clashes. This brings us straight into the middle of the events, giving them an immediacy and suddenness that makes this feel like anything but a traditional costume drama. Seductions have a steamy immediacy, while the growing moments of tension in the relationship between Mertuil and Valmont is similarly bought in close to us, to allow us to see the mix of emotions these two have for each other – both a deeply, unexpressed, love and a strange sense of loathing linked together with a possessive jealousy.

Frears makes marvellous use of mirrors in the film. These reflective surfaces appear in multiple shots and frequently expand the world, mirrors reflecting characters as others discuss them, or forcing into shot (usually between two other characters) the subject of conversations. They reveal (to the viewers) eavesdroppers hiding and, in one striking shot, as Valmont and Mertuil’s latest lover argue she is framed in reflection hanging above them on the wall mirror. There’s a reason why one of the film’s final sequences revolves around the smashing of a mirror in grief. 

The film’s modernism also stems from its use of very modern American actors – apeing the success of Milos Forman’s Amadeus – with everyone using their own accents. Glenn Close is superb as Mertueil, a woman projecting a cold, manipulative authority but does so to suppress and hide her own emotional vulnerability. Mertueil has convinced herself that she is a champion of her sex, but her every action seems to be motivated by finding indiscriminate revenge on all those who have found the sort of happiness she has been denied (or denied herself). Close lets little moments – wonderfully captured by the intimacy of Frears’ camerawork – where moments of micro-emotions and pain flash briefly across her face, only to be wiped away.

Malkovich is an unusual choice as Valmont – and his serpentine swagger and arch mannered style at first feels quite a disconnect with a character renowned as the most successful lover in France. But Malkovich’s eccentricity, his very oddity, in a way makes him believable as a man women would find intriguingly irresistible. Malkovich, while naturally perfect for the coldness of the character, is also highly skilled at expressing the slow, non-continuous growth of conscience and feeling in Valmont, as his feelings for Tourvel dance an uncertain line between manipulation and genuine feeling – and while his confused feelings for Mertuil alternate from possessive devotion to revulsion.

The whole cast respond well to Frears guidance, and his ability to draw relaxed performances from an odd selection of actors. Michelle Pfeiffer is particularly fine in a role that on paper could be very dull – the perfect, kind woman – but which she invest with such a seam of emotional truth and longing for deeper connections, combined with naked emotional honesty that she becomes the most compelling character in the film. Uma Thuman is very good as a naïve young girl, Kurtz and Natwick suitably arch as society bigwigs, Peter Capaldi creepily willing as a manipulative servant and even Keanu Reeves has a certain sweetness about him, even if he is at the height of his “Woah” dudeness.

The film’s principle problem is perhaps the very archness and coldness that makes it affecting. While it’s intriguing and intelligent, it is never perhaps as engaging as it should be and its characters are so jet-black, deceitful and cruel that it becomes hard at points to really invest in this chilling story of unpleasant people using other unpleasant people and manipulating innocent ones. It becomes a film easier to admire, perhaps carrying too much of the freezing chill of imperial French greed and selfishness. Come the denoument for all the skill it is played with the actors, it is hard to feel your emotions invested or your heart moved by any of the fates of the characters. Perhaps, in presenting a heartless world of selfishness and lies, it does its job too well.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer have a love that cannot survive the morals of society in The Age of Innocence

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Newland Archer), Michelle Pfeiffer (Countess Ellen Olenska), Winona Ryder (May Welland), Miriam Margolyes (Mrs Mingott), Geraldine Chaplin (Mrs Welland), Michael Gough (Henry van der Luyden), Richard E. Grant (Larry Lefferts), Mary Beth Hurt (Regina Beaufort), Robert Sean Leonard (Ted Archer), Norman Lloyd (Mr Letterblair), Alec McCowen (Sillerton Jackson), Sian Phillips (Mrs Archer), Jonathan Pryce (Rivière), Alexis Smith (Louisa van der Luyden), Stuart Wilson (Julius Beaufort), Joanne Woodward (Narrator), Carolyn Farina (Janey Archer)

In 1870’s New York, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), is a fastidious connoisseur of the arts, part of the super-rich elite of New York society. He’s engaged to be married to young May Welland (Winona Ryder), but finds his world view and values turned upside down when he meets May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen is a scandalous figure, a woman separated from her philandering European husband, trying to make her way in New York society. Newland and Ellen are irresistibly drawn together, but do they have a chance to be together in the oppressive society of the New York upper classes?

That’s one question. The one more people were asking was: how would Scorsese follow up Goodfellas? Probably very few people would have bet on an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In fact, in 1993, there was more than a little annoyance among some viewers at the idea of the master of gangster movies, the guy who directed Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, turning his hand to the realm of Merchant Ivory. The film bombed at the box office – but did it deserve that reaction? Was Scorsese a director out-of-place?

Well the reaction is slightly unfair, because The Age of Innocence is a marvellously filmed, exact, brilliantly constructed piece of film-making, that so lays on the opulence and wealth of New York society that it turns everything in the film into feeling like a gilded cage. That’s a cage carefully controlled and monitored by the inmates, with their strict, inflexible rules about every single social interaction, unbreakable rules of decorum and etiquette covering everything, with any deviation from these rules met with instant expulsion. Put it like that, and this doesn’t sound a million miles away from the gangster families Scorsese is more associated with.

Inspired by the films of Powell and Pressburger in its intricate construction, and flashes of artifice in filming and editing, as well as its rich colour palette, with touches of everyone from Visconte, Ophüls, Truffaut to name but a few, this is a film-maker’s love letter to cinematic classics. A beautiful sequence of Newland watching Ellen from behind and a distance on a jetty, yearning for her to turn around before a boat passes a lighthouse, using that landmark as the point when he will stop looking and accept something is not to be. The scene is bathed in a Jack Cardiff-ish red, with the objects in the light given a sharp definition in contrast to the colours. It’s a beautiful image, and one of several that run through the film. Inspired by paintings of the era, Scorsese also layers in Viscontish scenes of opulence, with The Leopard very much in mind as every detail of the vast wealth, and huge accumulation of objects in every room of these people’s houses, seems to crush and entrap the people in them. The rooms themselves become metaphors of the oppressive, rule-bound society the characters are trapped in, like the people have been designed to fit into the rooms rather than vice versa. The one exception is Ellen’s rooms, which have a sense of personality to them.

This marvellous construction – with its beautiful photography, inspiring design and costumes – contains a storyline of frustrated love, a love triangle between three people where the man has to make a choice between what he wants and what is expected of him. Newland Archer clearly loves Ellen in a way he can never love May – indeed, he is dismissively cruel in his thoughts towards May, who he clearly considers nothing more than an extension of the mindless gilded objects of beauty around him, a woman he sees as lacking an imagination or daring. In Ellen, he sees far more opportunities for a world of change, of difference, or being something he does not expect. She is far more of a free-spirit, a more bohemian figure, confident in herself and something far more modern than May, who is very much a product of her time and place.

The film, carefully demonstrates the growing unease and unsettlement of Archer as he begins to feel things he has never done before, to start to react and aim for a style of living he would never previously consider. All his life before now is a careful studying and collection of moments, or savouring experiences in the way that a collector would place them in a glass box. From seeing only the moments of plays he wishes to see, to carefully collecting shipments of books from London and reading the choice moments, Archer is a coldly controlling figure who believes he guides and directs his own life. Ellen not only demonstrates to him that in many ways he is as conventional as anyone else, but also that there are other options in his life. Archer struggles to build the emotional language that he needs in order to express these feelings bubbling in him – key moments indeed seem reminiscent of the operas that this New York society spends so much time watching, and it is only late in the film in little, genuine moments of affection can he find something real.

Scorsese’s film artfully and carefully shows this developing affection between the two, a love that the two of them speak of surprisingly early, but fail to find a genuine way of expressing it. The film captures the attempt by New York society at the time to be more British than the British, and the hidebound restrictions this brings. Scorsese uses cinematic tricks to show Archer’s striving to escape. Spotlights zero in on Archer and Ellen in the middle of society, as if to drain out all other moments. Letters from his respective love interests are delivered with the actors addressing the camera, as if speaking to Archer direct. Flashes of screen colour cover key cuts, as if all this colour was just on the edges of his life but he is unable to access them. He is a man who feels himself trapped and committed to one form of life, but who still feels the longing for another.

The Age of Innocence is a beautifully made film, but there is a coldness to it. Perhaps this is why it doesn’t quite capture the heart in the way of other films. So much as Scorsese captured the cold and restrictive world of this society, that it seems to permeate the film and make the whole thing somehow colder and more restrictive. There is such artistry and effort in the film-making, that the film seems a coldly detailed piece of art. Perhaps this is why the use of narration – beautifully spoken by Joanne Woodward – becomes overbearing here in the way it doesn’t in other Scorsese films. It’s another distance from the entire experience, as if the film is keeping the audience at arm’s length as much as society is. 

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is expertly assembled, a masterful, brilliantly observed, intricately detailed masterclass in micro-expression, of layered frustrations and repression. But it’s such a marvellously constructed, detailed and well observed performance that it feels a masterful piece of art to be admired rather than loved. For all the film centres Archer in the story, he is a hard man to care for or invest in. Pfeiffer gives a wonderful performance as the far freer, intelligent and daring Ellen – but there is a slight lack of spark between them, for all the brilliance of both actors the feeling of an overpowering, obsessive love just doesn’t quite come out of the picture.

This coldness of the construction, carries through every frame. It is perhaps an easier film to admire than love, for all its brilliant construction. It is perhaps too successful in establishing the sharp rules of its society, and does not invest enough time in looking at the raw passions that bubble under the surface of its characters. It never quite explores the inner life of its characters, and they remain slightly distant objects from us. To be fair, this works very well in some cases: Winona Ryder as May carefully plays her hand throughout the film, so that it is a shock in the final scenes where she reveals depths of determination, strength of character and manipulation that far dwarf anything Archer is capable of. Where he is a man with a wistful longing for what he wants, but lacks the will to take it, she knows what she wants and is determined to take it.

The film uses its mostly British cast very well, their understanding of period and these sort of society rules crucial to its success. Margolyes, Wilson and McCowen in particular are very impressive as very different types of society bigwigs. Scorsese’s film contains many other things to admire, but it’s such a wonderfully made piece of film-making, so overburdened with intelligent interpretation of the novel that it fails to make a real emotional connection with the viewer. You will respect and enjoy scenes from it, but perhaps find its running time as overbearing as the characters find the society they are in, and eventually find yourself needing to come up for air.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Animated DeMille epics in the rather brilliant The Prince of Egypt

Director: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells

Cast: Val Kilmer (Moses), Ralph Fiennes (Ramesses II), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), Sandra Bullock (Miriam), Jeff Goldblum (Aaron), Danny Glover (Jethro), Patrick Stewart (Pharaoh Seti), Helen Mirren (Queen Tuya), Steve Martin (Hotep), Martin Short (Huy), Ofra Haza (Yocheved)

When Dreamworks Studio was put together by three Hollywood mega hotshots (Katzenberg, Spielberg and David Geffen), Jeffrey Katzenberg, former head of Disney, finally got the chance to make his animated version of The Ten Commandments. The Prince of Egypt was the first project under the Dreamworks animation label – and it was intended to beat Disney at its own game. It succeeded – so well that many people think it actually is a Disney film. Is that a good thing?

Anyway, the story should be familiar. In Ancient Egypt, Moses (Val Kilmer), the child of Jewish slaves, is adopted by Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart) as a baby after being found in the bulrushes. Moses grows up as brother to Ramesses (Ralph Fiennes) the future Pharaoh – until the shock of finding out his heritage leads him to flee Egypt. But an encounter with the burning bush (voiced again by Kilmer) gives him a new mission – back to Egypt to demand of Ramesses “Let My People Go”. Will he succeed? Well: There Can Be Miracles (When You Believe).

It helps you to believe in miracles when a film looks as gorgeous as this one does. The animation is amazing, not just because of its quality and richness, but the imagination of its images. From the framing of Pharaoh and later Rameses around the Egyptian architecture around them, to an extraordinary dynamic shot of Moses throwing his sandals from the room when encountering the burning bush, to the haunting interpretation of the killing of the firstborn, it’s brilliant. 

It doesn’t stop there either, with the final parting of the Red Sea awe-inspiring in its scale. But the film does equally beautiful work with the smaller, more intimate moments: each character feels real and lived in, and the film perfectly captures smaller moments of affection, love and hurt with genuine emotional force. It’s a terrifically well-made film.

And of course it has a classic story – it’s literally stood the test of time. So imaginative are the visuals – and so impressive is its scope and scale – that it almost dwarfs the DeMille style it’s quietly apeing. In fact, I’d worry whether it is a film that will have greater appeal to movie-lovers and parents than perhaps it does to children. There isn’t much in the way of humour – even the film’s nominal comic characters, a pair of cynical Egyptian priests (and near con artists) voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short, are on the side of the oppressive baddies. There are a few decent songs in there – I rather like the Les Miserables style oomph of “Deliver Us” – and the film makes great use of the beautiful voice of the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza. But there is no getting around that this is a serious piece of film-making, with nary a comic camel in sight.

But this is no bad thing at all, and I think it stands The Prince of Egypt in good stead as it’s a film you’ll like more the older and more mature you are watching it. Not least the wonderfully complex relationship it explores between Moses and Ramesses – these two wild young men start as carefree kids (the first thing we see them do is smash up a temple building site in the film’s most cartoonish sequence, a sort of Wacky Races chariot drag race), and each become dramatically changed by responsibilities. Moses ascends to a higher plane of responsibility and humanity – but Ramesses finds himself forced into defending to the death a system of government he seemed at best disinterested in as a young man.

The film actually carries a great deal of sympathy for Ramesses. It’s in many ways a tragedy of the brother relationship between these two princes of Egypt getting shattered by events. But Ramesses is a lonely, almost needy figure, who needs Moses’ affection and respect. Ralph Fiennes mines a lot of vulnerability for this man struggling to fill his father’s shoes, who just wants Moses to chuck this whole prophet business in and go back to being his only friend. Ramesses becomes a complex, vulnerable and rather sad man – unable to deal with the pressure of his role and desperate to revitalise a lost connection with Moses, the hatred he eventually feels for his former brother born almost exclusively from rejection. 

Moses isn’t quite as interesting a character – he’s more of a waster who becomes a stand-up guy – but the film successfully builds an aura about him. It struggles a bit more with those Old Testament morals: we are meant to condemn Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Jewish firstborn that opens the film, but God’s massacring of the the Egyptian firstborn (for all Moses’ discomfort with it) is presented as being primarily the fault of the Egyptians’ stubbornness.

But then that steers us into theological territory, which no animated epic for kids can really manage to set new ground with. Instead, let’s focus on the many things the film does right. First and foremost that striking visual imagery and beautiful animation, and the depth and shading it gives to the characters. The all-star cast do extremely well – even Jeff Goldblum is fairly restrained – and it’s got some great songs. It deserves to be shown as often as The Ten Commandments on the television.

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.

Stardust (2007)

Claire Danes plays a star and Charlie Cox a village boy in charming adventure fairy-tale Stardust

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Claire Danes (Yvaine), Charlie Cox (Tristan), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Mark Strong (Prince Septimus), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare), Sienna Miller (Victoria Forester), Jason Flemyng (Prince Primus), Rupert Everett (Prince Secundus), Kate Magowan (Una), Ricky Gervais (Ferdy), Peter O’Toole (King of Stormhold), Joanna Scanlan (Mormo), Sarah Alexander (Empusa), Nathaniel Parker (Dunstan Thorn), Henry Cavill (Humphrey), Dexter Fletcher (Skinny Pirate), Ian McKellen (Narrator)

Stardust is loosely adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, an adult fairy tale refashioned into a crowd pleasing family film: a warm and genuine adventure story, stuffed with romance, excitement and drama.

Tristan (Charlie Cox) is a dreamy young man in the village of Wall, which neighbours the mystical and forbidden world of Stormhold. In love with the selfish Victoria (Sienna Miller), Tristan vows to travel to Stormhold and bring her back a fallen star. However, the star has landed in the form of a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), and the two of them find themselves on a difficult journey to return to Wall. Along the way they must dodge the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) who wishes to sacrifice Yvaine to regain her beauty, and the surviving sons of the late king of Stormhold, particularly the ruthless Septimus (Mark Strong), who need Yvaine’s necklace to claim the throne.

What works about Stardust is that it has an air of whimsy about it, without ever feeling whimsical or corny. It’s a grown-up fairy tale, in the sense that it has some black humour and acknowledgement of sex, but really it’s more of a charming adventure story in a fantasy setting, which manages to keep its tongue in its cheek and not take itself too seriously. Matthew Vaughn’s direction has a very light touch and never allows this soufflé of a film to either puff itself up too much, or to deflate. Instead it rolls along with a giddy charm, with a delightful odd-couple love story at the centre. It’s a film that totally gets its tone spot-on, helped by confident direction and a wonderful score.

Charlie Cox plays romantic lead Tristan with a great deal of charm and really captures the romance at his centre. He also manages that extremely difficult task of being likeable – you can’t help but warm to him despite the fact that his self-awareness is completely off for a large chunk of the film. Claire Danes is equally good as the prickly Yvaine, hiding a great capacity for emotion and longing under a defensive exterior. Their romance is of course highly traditional – they bicker because they love each other! – but both actors carry it off with a great deal of style. You can’t help but want them to get over their problems and get together.

The romantic plotline is also never overwhelmed by the faintly Pythonesque comedy that surrounds it, particularly from the ghostly chorus of deceased Princes of Stormhold. Vaughn produces a great cast of comic actors for this group, while entrusting Mark Strong with the lion’s share of the screentime as the dashing decoy antagonist. In fact, the construction of the film’s narrative is rather neatly done, as this plotline of the inheritance of Stormhold is largely kept separate narratively from the romantic Tristan/Yvaine storyline, with the intersections only occurring at key points.

The real antagonist of the film however is Michelle Pfeiffer’s witch Lamia, Pfeiffer offering a neat portrait of vanity intermixed with cruelty. It’s a very decent inversion of a “movie star” glamour performance, and Pfeiffer’s heartless ruthlessness is a very nice contrast with Tristan’s altruistic openness. In fact Pfeiffer is very good in this film: she gets the balance so right that Lamia constantly keeps you on your toes as to how villainous or not she may be. I’m not quite sure that the film quite manages to completely bring the two characters plot lines together to provide a really effective narrative drive to the film, but she certainly works as an effective antagonist.

The film’s structure is a combination shaggy dog story and classic quest structure, which allows each sequence to take on its tone and structure, from thriller to comedy, depending on the characters involved. What threads this together is the growing (and very sweetly structured) love story between Tristan and Yvain which keeps the momentum up as the film moves from location to location, with cameo roles sprinkled throughout, without the film losing momentum (though it is probably 15 minutes too long). The film’s comfort with letting it sequences expand is clear with Robert De Niro’s Captain Shakespeare, a feared cloud pirate whose secret desires are not so secret as he might think. The film delights in essentially extended jokes like this – but it gets away with it because these jokes manage to be quite funny (De Niro in particular turns in a very good comic performance).

It’s a film that manages to remain distinctive and original, while appealing to a wide audience, which is quite some trick to pull off. It also manages to do this without losing its distinctive rhythm, which is both endearing and enjoyable. The “rules” of its world are clearly established, and while many of the actors are slightly tongue in cheek, they never laugh at their characters but only gently tip the wink at the audience. This freedom largely comes from the conviction and honesty Danes and Cox endow the central characters with, to ground the film. It alsohas a great sense of emotional intelligence to it, and brings a lot of depth to the characters. It also helps that it’s brilliantly designed, looks ravishing and is full of several delightful performances.

There’s lots of terrific stuff in this film, with a very sweet story at its centre. In fact this sweetness is probably the secret of its success: it never takes itself very seriously, it dances lightly from scene to scene and never allows itself to become too overblown. It’s got a terrific cast and is well directed, with a snappy bounce. At moments it does feel a little long, and some sequences overstay their welcome a bit too much – but the central characters are so winningly played that you don’t really mind. Sure this is not a masterpiece, but it has a sort of magic about it, the charm, excitement, adventure and romance, all mixed together with such confidence that it’s a pleasure to watch.

The Russia House (1990)

Connery and Pfeiffer go behind the Iron Curtain

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Sean Connery (Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair), Michelle Pfeiffer (Katya Orlova), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Dante), Roy Scheider (Russell), James Fox (Ned), John Mahoney (Brady), Michael Kitchen (Clive), J. T. Walsh (Colonel Jackson Quinn), Ken Russell (Walter), David Threlfall (Wicklow)

Based on John Le Carré’s novel, The Russia House was one of the first espionage thriller films released after the fall of the Soviet Union, and therefore found itself exploring the curious impact of Glasnost on the games of one-upmanship that East and West played with each other.

Barley Blair (Sean Connery) is an over-the-hill publisher with connections in Russia, who is enlisted by MI6 to recruit the mysterious “Dante” (Klaus Maria Brandauer, a little too mannered for the film and under used), whose manuscript about Russian nuclear readiness has been intercepted en route to Blair by the intelligence services. Blair’s main contact is Dante’s former lover Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman trapped in political games.

Second-tier Le Carré is brought to the screen in a film that perfectly captures the authorial voice, but missing  narrative drive. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation masterfully captures the nuances and rhythms of Le Carré’s writing – the conversations of the CIA and MI6 operatives, their lingo and phraseology, are a perfect evocation of the author’s style, while Barley comes to the screen as almost the quintessential disillusioned middle-aged romantic: scruffy with a drink problem and a public school disdain for the prefects of the intelligence service.

The film’s other major positive is the central performance of Sean Connery. The former James Bond (then in the middle of a five-year purple patch of great roles which ran from The Name of the Rose to The Hunt for Red October) brilliantly plays against type as the dishevelled Barley, a man who feels like he has spent a lifetime circling failure and unreliability. Connery tones down his athletic physicality as an actor, playing Barley as a shuffling, hunched figure, often a step behind those around him. He’s also able to capture the romantic defiance behind Blair as well as a sadness and a self-loathing, his eyes showing years of shame at his own unreliability and the disappointments he has inflicted on people. It’s one of his least “Connery-like” performances, and a real demonstration of his willingness to stretch himself as an actor.

He’s well matched by some fine supporting performances. Pfeiffer is a very good actress who balances Katya’s vulnerability with a shrewd understanding of the compromises and dangers of the world she is in. Having said that, the chemistry between her and Connery doesn’t quite click into place during the course of the film. There are also good performances from James Fox and Roy Scheider as feuding intelligence boffins, and an eye-catching “love it or loath it” one from Ken Russell playing one of Le Carré’s quintessential campy, eccentric public-school intelligence operatives.

The film’s main weakness is that the actual story just isn’t quite interesting enough. The stakes never feel as high as they should be, and the unfolding of events seems unclear rather than carefully concealed from the audience. Despite the actors’ performances, Blair and Katya aren’t quite characters we can invest in enough and the momentum of the film too often gets bogged down in a reconstruction of intelligence agent squabbles. Schepisi films the Russian locations extremely well, but too often the camera lingers lovingly on a series of locations like a travelogue, slowing down the pace of the film as the film revels in its status as only the second Hollywood production allowed to film in Russia.

It’s an intelligent and faithful adaptation, but it doesn’t quite come to life. Stoppard’s script doesn’t carry enough narrative thrust and you simply don’t care enough about the fates of many of the characters. In many ways, a less faithful adaptation – such as the BBC’s recent production of The Night Manager – might well have made for a more compelling movie. As it is, although the film feels like an immersion into the author’s universe, it also feels like a dip into one of the less engaging and memorable offerings in his back catalogue. Along with the book’s strengths, it also carries across weaknesses. It’s satisfying enough and doesn’t outstay its welcome – but it also never really seizes the attention.