The Slow Road To Branagh: Murder on the Orient Express

It’s just after 10am, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The movie theater is packed, and I’m sitting in the second seat of the second row. The theater is quiet and dim, everything set for the show to start.

And then the projector kicks off. More accurately, it reboots, and after a few minutes and some apologies from a teenager, the movie starts.

I’ve got all my narrative tools laid out in front of me. I’m ready to get to work.

Today’s movie:

and here we go.

1 hour and 57 minutes later, I’m back in my car, recording my initial impressions.

I will tell you that I came in ready to eviscerate and destroy, and instead I left the theater feeling okay. Not bloodthirsty. Not disappointed. Not feeling like I wasted the $6 (thanks early morning prices). Just … okay.

Let’s get the particulars out of the way. Murder on the Orient Express is a 2017 film directed by (and starring) Kenneth Branagh, written by Michael Green (yes the guy from Logan and Blade Runner 2049), based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie. And yes, you should go read the novel at some point.

It is not a perfect movie. It is not the transcendent experience of the year, but it’s not awful either. It sits right in the middle of middlesburg, doing its best to be a workable movie that doesn’t warrant a lot of vitriol the way a DC movie would.

In fact, it doesn’t warrant a whole rewrite. It’s got some issues that I’ll point out so that you can take some practical advice into your own work, but it’s not in need of a full-on overhaul. I wanted it to be, I even had an idea in mind (which will probably end up on Patreon), but this movie doesn’t scream for it.

The best metaphor I can draw for this movie is this:

It’s pretty but hollow, and once you bite into it, you realize how far you are from the good stuff on the other side.

Character Development

If you’re not familiar with Hercule Poirot, you should go track down the David Suchet version that ran on PBS and A&E for 13 years. It’s the definitive Poirot. In a nutshell, Poirot is the Belgian Sherlock Holmes, the prim and exactingly fastidious deductive machine, brought in to solve crimes and discover criminals.

Branagh takes the prim and fastidious part as more than the window dressing and puts it front and center. Whether you want to term this compulsive or OCD is up to you, but Branagh’s Poirot is a package of quirks wearing what can best be described as a gray barbershop broom strapped to his face.

It’s really hard to present a well-formed character when you put attention on the quirks, even when you play them for levity (as Branagh does with eggs in the movie’s opening) or sincerity (as Branagh mumbles about a relationship just before the crime’s introduction to the story), because quirks aren’t enough to compose an idea. They’re window dressing, elements that highlight or torque other elements, and Branagh’s playing a biped with some really nice quirks in a really nice suit for nearly two hours.

This lack of depth persists to the other characters as well, since they’re played for utility over individuation (more on that in a second), and it almost doesn’t matter that you’ve got Johnny Depp as the dead guy or hey-that’s-Rey-from Star-Wars-in-a-cute-hat, because we’re meant to look at them well ahead of feeling anything for them.

Don’t worry though, Branagh will just come along and tell you how to feel, and the camerawork will reinforce that. Look at the pretty things, look how they look at each other in their lookingness.

Good visuals (which would be paragraphs and pages of description in text, see other blogpost), aren’t the same thing as humanizing the characters or showing motivations or giving the reader a permission slip or open door to care about them. It’s all just nice things to look at while time passes in our theater seat.

Additionally, time on screen (that is, time spent talking about a thing in text) is not the same as building connection with the reader/audience either. Just because you put a thing front and center, and Branagh puts himself so often literally front and center of so many shots that it’s hard not to conclude that ego drove this production, doesn’t mean that I care more about it.

If I knew what to do with the thing I’m shown so often, if I’ve got a context, or the opportunity to follow an arc beyond just one that addresses a plot, then I’ll care about it. You have to get to the Why (as in Why does _____ (doing whatever they’re doing) matter right here and right now to this character and other characters around them) in the story and not just the How or the What. Context is the reader’s passport to your world, and it’s hella tough to build context when the best bullet in your gun is “look how pretty everything and everyone is.”

Plot and Pacing

Without spoiling anything huge, the plot is this –

a) someone is killed on a train
b) detective figures out who did it
c) killer gets what’s coming to them

Johnny Depp is the victim here, and that’s as much of a spoiler as I’m willing to give you, because you should go read the novel for the rest of the story and its ending. I say Johnny Depp and not the character’s name deliberately, because he’s very clearly just being Johnny-Depp-as-a-1920s-crime-guy who’s waiting for his cue to cash his paycheck. He gets killed and Poirot has to figure out who did it.

The story hinges on the idea that every other character we meet in the story could be a suspect, and that this places a premium on the Belgian’s deductive faculties to solve the case.

Let’s talk about mystery construction for a minute, because you need the theory that sits under this story.

[LET’S ALL GO TO THE SIDEBAR]

Mysteries thrive on potential. The potential victim, the potential killer, the potential method and motive … it’s the unknown that drives not only the protagonist to solve the case, but also the audience to join in solving it or care about it being solved.

When you have multiple suspects, each should have a compelling and separate reason for their potential involvement in the crime. Having characters relate to each other ahead of their relationship to the crime does not give them additional potential to have done it. (This is called distinction of motivation, it’s also the same thing that makes characters in any ensemble join together to do plot in a story.)

Example: You decide you’ve had enough of your neighbor’s shenanigans. You create this elaborate plan to do them in, and you realize that you need my specific help. I’m not the patsy you’ll blame for the crime, I’m the future-accomplice. You’ve got two different roads to take for telling this story –

  1. You can lean on our relationship (yours and mine) to compel me to help you with the neighbor’s demise
  2. You can trust my relationship with the neighbor to compel me to help you do the deed.

Going with #1 puts the focus on how we relate to each other, and in turn dictates how the audience relates to us, individually and as a murder-partnership. Going with #2 makes you and I two individuals with similar goals, and our pre-existing relationship matters less than our post-murder relationship.

In every mystery, a premium is placed on the relationships. In the absence of defining the relationships and how they influence action, you put distance between the What (what’s happening) the Why (see above) and the How (how should an audience feel), which all conspires to keep the audience from really getting invested in the story.

[SIDEBAR OVER]

In order to flesh out the distinction of motivations, or focus on suspects and their relationships, you have to make sure in-story time is appropriately parceled out. Every possible suspect needs relatively equal time so that we can draw a conclusion of “Yes they could have done it just as much as the other person” over the course of what it mostly the second act.

The film doesn’t develop enough things equally, preferring instead to stay a more shallow course and provide enough details so we can distinguish Penelope Cruz’s character from Daisy Ridley’s but not the emotional cores of each woman that would compel them to care to act in a murderous way, even after plot revelations tell us (more on that in a minute) they have a reason.

With uneven development, you get uneven pacing. And in the face of uneven pacing, a lot of stories fall back on showing the less important things – in this case, we go right back to “look how pretty everything is.”

Show and Tell as Story Engine

The old adage is: “If you want a character to be thought of as smart, have them do more telling to other characters and the audience than showing.”

Detectives in particular make use of telling as part of the criminal revelation, which is usually the third act moment(s) where the killer or badguy gets pointed out just prior to story conclusion.

Where this goes a little wonky is that what’s being told is really being shown, just shown verbally, often through a monologue or some kind of narrated flashback. This way, it’s being told to the other characters, and both shown-and-told to the audience.

Poirot stories make their bones in this reveal, and they’re the story equivalent of flipping to the back of the textbook for the answers to see if what you got is the actual solution.

This system really works when the majority (if not the only) telling you get is in that third act, when all the pieces are finally put together by the only character who can really do all the assembling, and the audience is encouraged to mentally participate. (Note: Ellery Queen, a TV show from the 70s, took this to actually break the 4th wall and talk to the audience to ask them if they’ve figured it out).

Branagh’s Poirot spends the majority of the film telling us all different kinds of things in hasty little burbles, so that by the time we get to the big reveal and story resolution, we’re all sort of tired because over and over again we’ve been reminded of something we hadn’t forgotten – that Poirot is quirky and smart and there’s a crime and he’ll solve it, and oh by the way isn’t all this stuff and people really pretty.

Too much telling robs the audience of their ability to participate. It reinforces passivity, and doesn’t necessarily convey “look how smart the character is”, because the relationship where people would feel invested in the character’s smartness is too one-sided.

And because the audience is pushed to passivity, they can (and I’m so sorry I’ve harped on this a lot in these nearly two thousand words) see how pretty everything and everyone is and somehow derive satisfaction that the period costumes and setting look awesome.

So where does the rewrite live? Not in the plot, but in its broadcast to the audience. Here’s the quick outline

IN THE PRESENT:
A. Murder

IN THE PAST:
B. Show train, set up time frame
C. (cut to past) Intro detective on previous case
D. Intro reason to get detective on train
E. Intro other characters
F. Start train, prompt motive development

IN THE PRESENT:
G. Crime is discovered
H. Detective has compelling not-convenient reason to investigate
I. Detective investigates

IN THE PAST:
J. Clues discovered so far prompt detective to have certain train of thought or theory

IN THE PRESENT:
K. Progression of investigation changes relationships between characters
L. -insert any red herrings or distractions here –
M. Repeat of (I) and (J) as needed
N. Detective deduces solution.

IN THE PAST:
O. Murder is shown based on sum of (J) through (N)

IN THE PRESENT:
P.  Detective gathers all suspects
Q. Detective reveals what happened
R. Guilty party receives justice

That’s the crude back-of-the-napkin outline. With something as simple as shuffling the order of ideas around, you create something more gripping for the audience. Yes, of course, scrambling the order means you’d need to film segues and connective tissue, but it would all drive us to plot and resolution, which is where mystery is supposed to live.

In all, not a bad movie, and certainly deserving of all the praise and interest in its visuals. I just wish it was less Easter candy and more narrative candy bar.

Thanks for reading. Happy writing.

 

PS I love doing narrative breakdowns on movies, so if you want to see more of them, let me know

PPS If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix this week, I can strongly recommend Jim + Andy. Here’s the trailer.  It’s the EPK footage about Carrey’s performance/living as Andy Kaufman, and it’s amazing. I’m not even the largest Kaufman fan, but I’m a Carrey fan, and I was really moved and affected by this show. Go check it out. 

Posted by johnadamus

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