Loco Motives: Kenneth Branagh boards the classic Agatha Christie mystery 'Murder on the Orient Express'
Kenneth Branagh has had his morning espresso with honey—"brain food,” he says—is smartly dressed in suit, shirt and tie and ready to address the big question surrounding his new movie based on the Agatha Christie whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express.
Branagh, who produces, directs and stars in the Fox release, sporting an extravagantly outsize moustache to play the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, concedes that nearly everyone has either read the book or seen Sidney Lumet's 1974 movie and knows just who dunnit.
So, how to make it fresh and different?
It was a question that came up constantly in the many production meetings before filming began. And Branagh dodges revealing the solution that was arrived at, saying enigmatically: "I'd have to kill you if I told you all that. I'll say this: There's mystery, but there is rage and there's loss and grief underneath it all. And everybody has a story.
"What we did was to create as much paranoia and suspicion as we could. As for the end of the movie and people's familiarity with it, the who and the how and the why become really important. And the why becomes something that gives us great suspense… We've had the chance to be inventive and a bit imaginative about how the story goes, so I think there are some surprises."
So that's that. He is also cagey about how closely the plot of his film resembles Christie's novel. "It’s still on a train and you still have many of the same characters, but how do you refresh it? Well, we have added some pieces, no question, so we give, for instance, a sense of who Poirot is earlier and differently in this film than is the case in the novel or the previous movie. Our inspiration comes from the novel, but we have also raided some of the other books."
He won't even confirm that Edward Ratchett, the villainous American played this time by Johnny Depp, is still the murder victim, as he was in the book and the previous movie.
We are talking in a marquee on the massive set at Longcross Studios in Surrey, where snowy mountains loom above a life-size replica of the famed Orient Express—a fully moving train comprised of an engine, a tender and four complete carriages and able to move along the nearly one mile of track that was laid down at what was once a Ministry of Defense tank testing site. All the interiors of the carriage, the dining salon and sleeper cars were built a second time, with lavish interiors and floating walls to allow filming inside.
On a nearby soundstage, a replica of Stamboul (now Istanbul) Station has been constructed, with huge columns, two tracks and platforms on either side, while on the back lot a viaduct has been built, with a mountainside and the mouth of a tunnel at the top.
The train in the film is stalled by an avalanche rather than a snowdrift, with the passengers stranded on a perilously high bridge, and 56-year-old Branagh's Poirot is physically much fitter than his predecessors.
With the 13-week shoot finished, we talked again, this time at the Ham Yard Hotel in Soho, where in the nearby theatre most of his all-star cast were posing for pictures.
Depp is one of a big-name group of supporting characters who were happy to be cast in roles that, while larger than cameos, did not demand too much of their time. They include Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Olivia Colman.
"They are a lovely group, aren’t they?" Branagh asks proudly. "You can tell that this is a group with rapport. A really critical component was Judi Dench, who was the first person I cast. I asked her if she would do it and I hadn't finished the question when she said yes.
"Judi is a talismanic figure. Derek and Judi know each other from a thousand years ago; Johnny has worked with Judi and he worships her. She was like a weather vane. And also, she is always first there. She has trouble seeing, but she never complains about it."
Although he has a fierce intensity of focus, Branagh seems much more relaxed in the confines of a luxury hotel than he was on the fake snowy set at Longcross where he was juggling directing and acting duties while trying to keep his large cast happy and involved.
"I tried never to waste their time," he says. "Always get them when they are in the mood, get them on the train and shoot quickly. Really shoot quickly because that is 16 actors times 16 makeup artists times 16 costume assistants and so that becomes a bloody train carriage."
Kenneth Branagh is no stranger to both acting and directing, having doubled up 20 times since Henry V in 1989, which earned him Oscar nominations for both acting and directing.
But he admits that Murder on the Orient Express was a tough task. Although he had a stand-in who knew Poirot's lines and did a sterling job, Branagh had to learn to speak French like a Belgian and to do so he had a voice coach and tapes to practice with. "Hours of tapes," he says. "If my Jack Russell could talk, he'd talk with a French accent because he was the one who heard most of it."
Before going to the set, he would get up early and meditate. "That helped me not to be overwhelmed," he explains. "But what I found with this was that there was absolutely relentless, remorseless demand every day.
"Every time I did something difficult, there was something else difficult to come along. Although it’s not brain surgery-difficult, it’s pretty labor-intensive, and boy, did I feel it.
"We finished up doing some sequences in Malta and for thew eek after that I slept like a man who had never slept before. It was like a physical change in my body and I felt like I had sunk into the bed. I felt like I had been an engine that was revving so high, so consistently and so continually, that it has been such a thrill to not be doing quite so much of that multitasking at that pitch. Even if you can convince yourself to enjoy the Poirot, enjoy the directing and enjoy the coffee, you can’t do it all the time."
The Belfast-born Branagh, once hailed as the "new Laurence Olivier," has branched out from his early Shakespearean roots on both the stage and in film to deftly straddle the high-low culture divide. His wide variety of roles, both in front of and behind the camera, have earned him four BAFTAs, an Emmy (for TV's Conspiracy) and five Oscar nominations across five different categories—Best Actor and Best Director (Henry V), Best Live Action Short Film (1992’s Swan Song), Best Adapted Screenplay (Hamlet in 1996) and Best Supporting Actor (My Week with Marilyn in 2012).
His TV series “Wallander” ran for seven years until 2015 and his recent credits as a director include the blockbusters Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Cinderella. He was a Naval officer in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and in between everything else he has been wearing multiple hats as leading actor, director and company manager of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, which he founded two years ago. He was knighted in 2012 for services to drama and philanthropy in his native Northern Ireland.
Although he talks articulately and engagingly about his work, he is reluctant to discuss his private life, although from 1989, when he married Emma Thompson, Ken and Em, as they were known, were Britain’s premier theatrical couple. Together for six years, they were a dynamic duo who starred in the television drama Fortunes of War, performed on the variety series “Thompson,” appeared on the American stage in King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, co-starred in Dead Again and Peter’s Friends and appeared in Look Back in Anger both on stage and television.
After they divorced in 1995, he was romantically involved with Helena Bonham Carter for five years and for the last 14 years he has been married to Lindsey Brunnock, an art director he met while they were working on the television drama Shackleton.
As for the future, he has no doubts about either himself or his work, with a well of Agatha Christie's works to draw upon for a long time to come should he feel so inclined.
"Iam an optimistin life, and it's a scientific fact that optimists live longer," he says. “I would love it if we could make some more films from Agatha Christie's books, although I'm sure we're not going to make 37 of them, which is how many books we have to choose from."