Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
I’ve been a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s acting for years now having enjoyed him in everything from Dead Again to Dunkirk to his under-appreciated Wallander series, but his directing choices have been a bit more hit (Much Ado About Nothing) and miss (Sleuth). His latest film sees him dual-wielding his talents as both director and actor, and the results are pretty damn entertaining.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Commentators: Kenneth Branagh (director/actor), Michael Green (screenwriter)
1. The Scott Free production logo reminds Green of the sketches producer Ridley Scott will doodle if he’s enjoying his conversation with you.
2. Branagh chose to shoot the movie on 65mm film because he believes “it immerses you in the story viscerally with these colors.”
3. This is Green’s favorite Agatha Christie novel.
4. The opening scene set at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall was filmed in Malta. Branagh promises the balcony scene was actually filmed in Malta too with real boats and ocean water as a backdrop despite how “perfectly blue and saturated” that it looks like an f/x composition shot.
5. Branagh compliments Green on Poirot’s (Branagh) transition from his showmanship of deduction to his enjoyment of the “backstage” characters of a favorite restaurant.
6. The character of Pilar Estravados, here played by Penelope Cruz, is an invention of Green’s but with a name borrowed from Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. She has a false name in that tale, something Green homaged here.
7. They scouted the real Orient Express and found themselves shifting from pure giddiness to more practical concerns as they began planning how to take the best advantage of its interiors.
8. The Fragilite cake scene — the exchange between Poirot and Edward Ratchet (Johnny Depp) — was filmed over a day and a half, and in addition to improvisation, the scene also required numerous bites of cake. He says Depp “is absolutely unafraid of a world most actors live in fear of which is eating onscreen.”
9. Christie commonly included facts in the first third of a novel that was meant to either be remembered by readers as legitimate clues or simply distracted by. The trick, and one of her great talents was in keeping readers guessing as to in which category each piece of information belonged.
10. The discovery of Ratchet’s murder is shot as a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder with the overhead view. “The result is to make what was a human story shot in the horizontal suddenly rather forensic, rather inhuman, rather mathematical.”
11. Branagh really walked atop an actual train for the scene where Poirot does the same, and despite the addition of a safety wire he found it properly terrifying “for this 56-year-old actor.”
12. The train car corridors in the film are “slightly wider” than the real Orient Express ones to accommodate cast and crew.
13. Branagh says certain “colleagues” voiced concern while filming the overhead scene revealing the body and the myriad of clues because he wasn’t shooting any coverage (close-ups) for any of it. He wasn’t interested in CSI-like close-ups. “I wanted to offer up in this big screen format all the things. They’re still there in the picture, so the watch is still there, the wounds are still there, Johnny Depp’s face is still there.”
14. Depp asked Branagh to apologize to Derek Jacobi (who plays Edward Henry Masterman) for him after filming their scene together “because I had to shout at him, I don’t want to shout at Derek Jacobi.”
15. Branagh points out a Dutch angle shot (and clarifies they’re actually “Deutsche” angles because they’re from German expressionism. “It’s something I enjoy enormously. I remember getting a lot of grief myself because we used many of them in Thor, and for me, it was about expressing the panels in comic books, but I know some people feel it’s a bit of an affection.”
16. Christie was among the first British citizens to surf standing up on the board?!
17. The chase between Poirot and Hector MacQueen (Josh “Action” Gad) originally extended to a foot race across the ice, but the scene was cut.
18. Branagh mentions that “if” they get the opportunity to follow the film up with Poirot’s adventure on the Nile that audiences will learn more about the detective’s lost love Katherine. Happily, for fans, 20th Century Fox has already green-lit Death on the Nile.
19. The shot of the suspects seated at the long table in the tunnel is an obvious and clear visual nod to “The Last Supper,” but Branagh and Green point out it’s more than just a disconnected image. The famous painting features the apostles and a single traitor, Judas, and the implication here is that a single killer sits among the gathering.
20. They had a mile of real track built for their real train at Longcross Studios in Surrey, England.
21. The line at the end regarding a murder on the bloody Nile was Green not only suggesting a sequel to the studio and audiences but also his “tip of the hat to Mr. [Christopher] Nolan and his first Batman film where he tells us ‘of course this is just the beginning.'”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Hercule Poirot is more than the sum of other people’s reactions.”
“I want to dress as Daisy Ridley for Halloween every year.”
“Where were you the day the end credits for The Abyss started?”
Buy Murder on the Orient Express on Blu-ray from Amazon.
Too many folks dismissed this movie for various reasons — including due to the familiarity of its plot (?) — but it’s a damn fine piece of entertainment. It’s smart, well-acted, picturesque, and highly effective in its denouement. Both Branagh and Green are highly enthusiastic about the film and characters, and they offer plenty of insight into its production. It’s a solid listen, and I’m already excited about Poirot’s next adventure.