Tag Archives: Kenneth Branagh

Murder Was Again the Case

Death on the Nile

by George Wolf

“He accuses everyone of murder!”

“It is a problem, I admit.”

This playful admission by legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is one of the ways Death on the Nile has some winking fun with the often used, often parodied Agatha Christie formula.

And since Christie’s source novel is one of the works that perfected that formula, it’s smart to acknowledge some inherent campiness while you’re trying to honor the genius of the original construction.

After his successful revival of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, Branagh is back to again star, direct, and team with screenwriter Michael Green for another star-studded, claustrophobic whodunit.

This time we’re aboard a lavish cruise down the Nile in the late 1930s. Wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) has just married the dashing Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), and they’ve invited a group of friends and family (including Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright and no-that’s-not-Margot- Robbie-it’s Emma Mackey) to help them celebrate.

Ah, but love and money bring “conflicting lies and jealousies,” and soon Linnet proves wise in putting the world’s greatest detective on the guest list. Murder is again the case!

And when Hercule Poirot is on it – which takes a while – Branagh and Green craft a capable reminder of what makes this formula so sturdy. From the discovery of clues to the requisite red-herring accusations, it’s just fun to feel part of Poirot’s deductive process.

But while Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos expertly utilize the confines of the ship to their advantage, the surrounding locales smack of outdated CGI and land as a disappointing stand-in for the eye-popping wonder of Orient Express.

Branagh and Green also try valiantly to weave a layer of love through the mystery. Opening with a prologue that introduces a decades-old pining (along with Poirot’s keen eye for detail and a dubious inspiration for that mustache), the film’s ambitions for this added narrative weight are worthy, but ultimately add more running time than substance.

The epilogue that checks in with Poirot six months after the cruise lets us know Branagh may have more Christie mysteries on his itinerary, and that’s not a bad thing. Death on the Nile proves that a trusty return to glamour and intrigue can still overcome some excess baggage.

The Pipes Are Calling

Belfast

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

As an actor, Kenneth Branagh can be very ALL CAPS. As a director, he’s harder to pin down. The one thing you can point to, whether his directorial efforts work or do not, is that they are theatrical.

I mean that in a good way, usually. For his latest, the bittersweetly semi-autobiographical Belfast, I mean it in a good way specifically.

Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Set the whole thing to a steady beat of Van Morrison tunes (natch!), and just listen to those pipes start calling.

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

That boy, young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill, stunning), has to wade through a crush on a smarter, taller, Catholic girl as well as his beloved grandfather’s failing health, his parents’ bickering over money, and, of course, the Troubles. (That is to say, the civil unrest in Northern Ireland that erupted around the time Buddy turned 9.)

Branagh surrounds his young star with talent in every direction, some of it a bit of a surprise. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench delight as Buddy’s grandparents, while Jamie Dornan impresses with a tender, earnest turn as his father.

Caitriona Balfe shines nearly as brightly as Hill, playing his fierce mother. Balfe benefits from the story’s greatest arc and most of its heaviest emotional scenes, carrying the film’s weight with grace.

Young Hill charms in every scene, though that’s something Branagh’s film has to spare. The script he penned of his memories sweeps you into an idealized, meticulously crafted yarn so lyrical it could be nothing other than Irish.

Yes, the film’s brushstrokes get fairly wide, but take that as an invitation to let Branagh’s memories spur your own – of parents and grandparents, close knit neighborhoods and days where wonder could be found most anywhere.

Is Belfast too precious? It comes close, but between a truly game cast and sheer filmmaking craftsmanship, the vision is hard to deny — as is the opinion that this is Kenneth Branagh’s finest film.

Time Out Of Mind

Tenet

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

A not-at-all funny thing happened to the movie calendar this year. And now, instead of kicking off the summer blockbuster season with a bang, the stakes for Tenet are a wee bit higher: rescue movie theaters.

As you may have heard, writer/director Christopher Nolan has been adamant that this film be experienced in theaters. He’s not wrong.

Tenet is a sensory battering experience, one not to be paused or downsized. The ideas are big, the visuals are full of wide-eyed wonders, and the persistent mind-bending immediately invites second helpings (maybe more).

An agent known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) is introduced to technology that has the power to invert time. Time travel? Sorry, that’s Bill & Ted kid stuff. We’re talking the ability to move forward in a space where everything else is moving backward.

Nolan is returning to a familiar playground that manipulates time and reality. From Leonard looping through a constant present tense in Memento to Cobb forever bumping into his own past in his attempts to shift the future in Inception, back to The Prestige, forward to Interstellar and again to the braided timelines of Dunkirk, Nolan is a filmmaker who orchestrates universes by playing with time and consequence.   

In Tenet, the future is talking to the past, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. To put things right, our Protagonist and a mysterious partner named Neil (Robert Pattinson) must gain the trust of a high-end art dealer (Elizabeth Debicki) on the way to taking down her Russian arms dealer husband (Kenneth Branagh) who’s thinking bigger than Thanos.

A dialog heavy first half benefits primarily from the oily charm and sly humor of Pattinson’s character, whose arc is made more fun and more interesting by the way the film loops its realities. As elegant as always, Debicki exists to give the film a truly human character, which is to say, one whose behavior is too often (and too conveniently) impetuous.

The film’s biggest drawbacks are some cliched dialogue and its tendency to present itself as a SciFi James Bond movie with well-dressed characters popping up in gorgeous locales to impressively (and too conveniently) offer well-timed information. (Washington does impress as a potential Bond, though.)

The two and a half hour running time is not a concern, because once we hit the midpoint, Nolan (with a big assist from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and stunt coordinator George Cottle) decide we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Past and present collide in some of the most interesting, tense and downright fun action sequences Nolan’s ever put together—and fan or not, that’s a feat to acknowledge.

That’s merely a summary that doesn’t require a physics degree, but as Nolan’s own screenplay admits, “Don’t try to understand it.” We’re back to big screens, baby, let’s make it count!

How the Heck Are Ya, Bill?

All Is TrueA

by Brandon Thomas

Kenneth Branagh and William Shakespeare have become synonymous with one another in the world of cinema. As a director, Branagh has made five of The Bard’s plays into movies, and in many of them, he’s joined the cast. It’s fitting that Branagh finally ends up playing Shakespeare himself in All is True.

In 1613, Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre burned to the ground. Left without a homebase to stage his momentous plays, William Shakespeare returned to his country home. There, he’s “greeted” by the wife (the always amazing Judy Dench) and daughters he left behind while making his name in London. Away from the stage, Shakespeare struggles to come to terms with the legacy he’s created. The loss of a child haunts him, and the inadequacy instilled in him through his father bubbles to the surface and forces the famous playwright to face a life of personal mistakes.

Shakespeare was known for having his distinct tragedies (MacBeth, Othello) and comedies (Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It). The beauty of All Is True is how well Branagh intertwines both genres. The tragedy of losing a child never threatens to overwhelm the film nor do some of the “sillier” elements, such as the fascination a neighbor’s dog finds in William. The balance in tone doesn’t come easy, but it certainly keeps the film interesting.

There’s a casualness to All Is True that is very inviting. It’s a film that’s never in a hurry, but also doesn’t overstay its welcome. Scenes are allowed to breathe in a way that feels like you’re watching an intimate stage play—the epitome of this being a breathtaking scene between Branagh and Sir Ian McKellen. It’s a scene that consists mostly of tight close-ups, set in one location, and it’s riveting.

It’s no surprise that Branagh nails his portrayal. His William Shakespeare is a man that understands his legacy even if he hasn’t completely come to terms with it. Without his work, he’s a man that’s chasing happiness—a happiness he’s never been able to find as a husband or father.

By humanizing the world’s most famous playwright, All Is True tries to move past the legend of William Shakespeare and comment on the inner workings of the man himself.


Terror Train

Murder on the Orient Express

by Hope Madden

Kenneth Branagh likes a big room.

The thespian and Shakespearean master often feels ill-suited to film, as if he cannot help but play to the back row. Whether Branagh is in front of or behind the camera, subtlety and subtext don’t appear to come easily.

How about Agatha Christie? Branagh gambles that a 20th-century crime novelist whose prose created the architecture for a genre of books, movies, stage and television will still thrill modern audience.

A stacked ensemble for Murder on the Orient Express makes the same wager.

Branagh plays Christie’s brusque genius, Belgian Inspector Hercule Poirot.

Branagh the director is so preoccupied with Branagh the actor that his talent-laden cast is offered little more to do than to quickly hash out one-dimension. The waste of talent is the real crime afoot.

Those underused? A wide array of A-listers, from immediate hot properties Daisy Ridley (The Last Jedi) and Marwan Kenzari (Aladdin) to cinematic icons (Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi) to true movie stars (Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp)—and that’s not even half the cast.

Josh Gad appears in his second period-piece of the season (after last month’s Marshall), here playing a shady, drunken lawyer-turned-secretary who just might have killed a man.

Leslie Odom Jr. (Broadway’s Hamilton) plays a problem-solving doctor and former sharpshooter who just might have killed a man.

Penelope Cruz is a missionary nurse who won’t touch a drink, but she just might have…

You get the point. It’s an Agatha Christie story. At its best, campy, stagey fun. At its worst, stale.

The movie is a bit of both.

In keeping with Branagh’s love of spectacle, Murder on the Orient Express is a gorgeous, larger-than-life adventure. He shot on 65mm, and whether 20th Century Fox decides to release a 70mm print or not, the result is a glorious display, particularly in Act 1.

By the second act, we’re trapped in the train with a murderer. At that point, Branagh’s film starts to smell musty, and no quirky fun performances (Pfeiffer is particularly memorable) or delicately framed dining car treats can freshen things up.

When not doting on his star, Branagh’s camera showcases dazzling locations before luxuriating in the sumptuous appointments of the elegant train cars. It’s big. Very big. Grandiose, you might even say.

Which makes no sense at all for Christie’s close-quarters sleuthing of clues, faces, motives and sleight of hand.