Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”


What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble.

Branagh is clearly invested in giving us an in-depth look into M Poirot’s psyche but by allowing him to dominate the narrative so, he neglects to pay the many other characters the attention they need for us to fully invest in the emotional stakes of each of their situations. For that’s a rather important aspect here and one that would keep the storytelling much more engaging, well before the finale finally grabs our attention. As it is, it all ends up rather dull, glamorous window-dressing in pointlessly ugly CGI settings, narrative clarity sacrificed for tricksy camera angles.

Photos: Allstar/20th Century Fox



Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 3





There’s something perhaps a bit perverse in some of the strongest episodes of new Who emerging from the series which (arguably) had the weakest companion. Freema Agyeman was ill-served by writing that couldn’t let her be a companion in her own right, as opposed to the-one-in-Rose’s-shadow, and consequently never felt entirely comfortable in the TARDIS.
Series 3 has real highs and certain lows – the introduction of Doctor-lite episodes (to ease the production schedules) produced the inventive wonder that was Blink (and further proved Steven Moffat’s genius), the unashamed grab for the heartstrings was perfectly realised in the Human Nature / The Family of Blood double-header, and the re-introduction of one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes was well-judged. That said, we also had the inevitable return of the Daleks who already feel like they’re in danger of over-exposure.


Episodes, in order of preference

Human Nature
The Family of Blood
The Shakespeare Code
The Sound of Drums
Last of the Time Lords
The Runaway Bride
The Lazarus Experiment
Smith and Jones
Daleks in Manhattan
Evolution of the Daleks

Top 5 guest spots

1 Dean Lennox Kelly’s rugged and omnisexually flirtatious Shakespeare was hugely charismatic
2 Almost unbearably poignant, Jessica Hynes’ Joan Redfern’s love story with the human John Smith is magnificently done
3 A pre-Hollywood Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow – the best companion that never was
4 Tom Ellis all stubbly is always a treat
5 Derek Jacobi’s Professor Yana – I still get chills thinking about the epic reveal at the end of Utopia

Saddest death

A tie between the Face of Boe’s heroic demise in Gridlock and Chipo Chung’s gently elegiac and courageous Chantho.

Most wasted guest actor

Bertie Carvel’s three seconds as The Lazarus Experiment’s Mysterious Man is egregious, as is most every choice for Miranda Raison’s New Yoik flapper.

Most important thing that is never mentioned again


I think most things in this series made sense or had their time and place, even the paradoxes, after all it’s just “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey….stuff”.




Gay agenda rating

B – Shakespeare and the Doctor makes for the kind of fanfic that (some) people dream of.


TV Review: Inside No. 9 – The Devil of Christmas

“They film Doctors in much the same way nowadays”

Just a quickie for this as I’ve never actually watched Inside No. 9 before, but enough people were making positive noises about its festive episode The Devil of Christmas that I found it hard to resist giving it a try, especially as it had Jessica Raine in the cast. And not knowing what to expect only added to the fun of a piece of television that revelled in wrong-footing its audience again and again.

Opening as a pastiche of 1970s Play for Todays as an English family arrive in an Austrian chalet for a skiing holiday, all plummy accents and stilted camera moves, the first rug pull comes with the arrival of a director’s commentary over the top, arch remembrances and bloopers pointed out in real-time. And as the folktale horror of the story kicks in, based around the legend of Krampus, actual horror replaces it, more than once.
I don’t think I’ve seen a review that hasn’t just spoiled the plot wholesale – I won’t be following suit. Suffice to say that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s writing was brilliantly layered and very amusing, and along with Graeme Harper’s direction, stuffed full of Acorn Antique-y details of fluffed lines and continuity errors. 
Both writers also starred in the piece, along with the genius casting of Rula Lenska, a veteran of Play for Today first time round and very archly funny. Raine continues to prove herself a consummate actor of real intelligence and Derek Jacobi was great value for money as the director, full of drily scathing remarks and unexpectedly dark right to the end. A neat counterpoint to your usual festive programming, and I might well track down the earlier episodes in advance of the third series starting in the new year.

TV Review: Last Tango in Halifax Series 4

“You’re not going down South?”

It’s hard not to be a little disappointed with the fact that Series 4 of Last Tango in Halifax consists of only two episodes. But when the drama is of this good a quality, you can’t begrudge Sally Wainwright taking her foot off the pedal here just a little (her Brontë Sister drama To Walk Invisible is also on over the festive period). And even with just 2 hours of television to play with, she still packs a lot in.
Still mourning the loss of Kate and adjusting to life as a single mother to Flora, Sarah Lancashire’s Caroline uproots her family to the rural outskirts of Huddersfield as she’s taken a new headship at a state school there. And newlywed Gillian is struggling with guilt of what she did to her new husband’s brother, to whom she was also married. Meanwhile, Alan and Celia are sucked into the world of am-dram.
It is abundantly clear that Wainwright knows where the strengths of Last Tango in Halifax lie – the genial charms of Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi’s septuagenarian lovers are best when their troubles are mere trifles, squabbling with each other with a twinkle still in the eye brings out the best in both of them. Which leaves the heavier lifting for Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire who, brilliantly, get several scenes on their own.
The script may have relied on a little too many “I’ve not told you this but…” scenarios to get through all of the necessary plot points but seeing these two together onscreen is a continuing genuine pleasure, the rich complexity of their relationship caught somewhere between step-sisterly rivalry and genuine friendship remains just fantastic to watch, both women filling their performances with all manner of wonderful details. A perfect festive treat.

DVD Review: Last Tango In Halifax Series 3

“You can’t put a price on avoiding deep vein thrombosis”

I sat down to watch the new episodes of Last Tango in Halifax on the iPlayer but only as it started, did I realise that I had somehow neglected to watch Series 3 when it aired a couple of years ago. So having tracked it down, I indulged in a good old binge of quality Sally Wainwright drama. I loved Series 1 and Series 2 but in the final analysis, found this third season to be a little disappointing by comparison.

Since we’re more than two years down the line now, I think I can safely discuss the main reason for this – the killing-off of Nina Sosanya’s Kate in an unexpected incident of Dead Lesbian Syndrome. It was a high value example of the trope as well, considering it happened on the day after her wedding to Sarah Lancashire’s Caroline and whilst she was heavily pregnant with the child they intended to raise together.

Its disappointing decision to rupture a happy lesbian couple aside, it didn’t work for me on a larger level within the show as well, as it allowed a kind of reset of all that had passed in the first half of the series. Anne Reid’s Celia struggling with her daughter’s sexuality and decision to marry, Derek Jacobi’s Alan need to trad carefully around his wife’s homophobia, and the way in which this exploded on the day of the ceremony itself felt like a rich vein of drama to explore and with Caroline’s younger son also skipping out, the ramifications of such actions would have been good enough for me.

But with Kate’s death came all the instant forgiveness that only exists in the world of film and TV and the series shifted gear into Caroline’s struggles as a single mother, albeit with a huge extended family, which I just didn’t care for as much. More fun was the (comparatively) light-heartedness of Nicola Walker’s Gillian’s men problems – batting off marriage proposals, unable to resist shagging the young fit men around her and unsure if she’d ever be able to shake of the demons of the past.

Jacobi and Reid share a wonderful chemistry that is always fun to watch, even when they’re bickering, but the scenes where Caroline and Gillian come together are without fail some of the best on TV. Lancashire and Walker deliver such rich, complex characterisation of Wainwright’s nuanced writing that you’d happily, for example, watch an entire episode of them just talking to each other – determined that they’re so different to each other and yet subtly, sympathetically, so very similar.

And if I just don’t mention the sub-plot of Rupert Graves’ random long-lost borderline-psycho son from the past who just happens to be super-rich, then maybe it might just get forgotten… Now finally I can get on with Series 4!

2017 What’s On Stage Award nominations

Best Actor in a Play, sponsored by Radisson Blu Edwardian
Ian Hallard for The Boys in the Band
Ian McKellen for No Man’s Land
Jamie Parker for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child 
Kenneth Branagh for The Entertainer
Ralph Fiennes for Richard III

Best Actress in a Play, sponsored by Live at Zédel 
Billie Piper for Yerma 
Helen McCrory for The Deep Blue Sea
Lily James for Romeo and Juliet
Michelle Terry for Henry V
Pixie Lott for Breakfast at Tiffany’s Continue reading “2017 What’s On Stage Award nominations”

CD Review: Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid and Michael Ball and Alfie Boe

“Shall we dance?

‘I thought you’d never ask!'”

Though Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid and Michael Ball and Alfie Boe could form a weirdly intriguing supergroup, it’s actually two separate CDs that they’ve released in pairs. Last Tango In Halifax co-stars Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid have their gently swinging You Are The Best Thing… That Ever Has Happened To Me and powerhouse belters Michael Ball and Alfie Boe and come Together for a booming musical theatre extravaganza.

Recorded with the Jason Carr Quartet, You Are The Best Thing… is exactly how you’d imagine an album by two such national treasures would play out. Standards like ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ rub shoulders with lesser known tracks (to me at least) like ‘I May Be Wrong (but I Think You’re Wonderful), and ‘You Haven’t Changed At All’ and the mood is one of exquisitely tailored classiness.

Carr’s arrangements ideally accommodate the vocal capabilities of his talent and with all their spoken interludes and ad-libbing, it’s clear that Jacobi and Reid have great affection for one another and are having the time of their life here. It’s a sense of fun that is comparatively lacking in Michael Ball and Alfie Boe’s Together, the focus there being mainly on the booming vocals for which they’re both known and little else besides.

So they build through a Les Misérables medley to roar through ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ after ‘Bring Him Home’ and ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, they smash Blood Brothers‘ ‘Tell Me It’s True’, Christina Perri’s ‘A Thousand Years’. need I tell you how epic the take on ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is… It all just becomes a bit wearying, though admittedly their style of singing is just not my particular cup of tea.

Even in the quieter moments – ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ or a ‘Wonderful World/Over The Rainbow’ mash-up – I’m longing for a subtler vocal, particularly from Boe, as you end up faintly terrified at what his lullaby singing style must be like! The song selection cleaves closely to standards territory too – West Side Story, Phantom, Chess... – and so it all ends up a rather underwhelming collection, though fans of either or both will doubtless find much more to enjoy.

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Garrick

“More inconstant than the wind…”

KenBran’s residency at the Garrick continues with an all-star Romeo and Juliet, reuniting Richard Madden and Lily James from his Cinderella, and there’s finally a bit of interesting casting with Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. That said, it’s somewhat typical that this season’s one headline concession to diversity has been to put an old white man in a young white man’s part. Here’s my 3 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 13th August

DVD Review: Henry V (1989)

”Customs curtsy to great kings”

It is instructive to watch performances from Kenneth Branagh such as these, to counteract the ones he is currently giving as part of his company’s year-long residency at the Garrick. They have their fans to be sure but for me, there’s something much more powerful about the subtlety on display as a younger actor as opposed to the broader, louder turns he’s given thus far. Sacrilegious as it may be to admit it, I have no real love for Henry V as a play but there is no denying this excellent piece of film-making, directed by Branagh in his debut in the chair.

Taking a grittier, more ‘realistic’ take on this history pays dividends, not least in minimising the slapstick for which I care little but also emphasising an emotional truthfulness that doesn’t always come across on stage. Only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved by Judi Dench’s achingly poignant farewell to Falstaff, or be swept up in the playful flirtiness between the King and Emma Thompson’s Princess Katherine, or be chilled by the declaration at Harfleur, Branagh showing us the young monarch taking the brutal responsibility of a warrior. 

There’s a keen sense of cinematic vision that really works here too. Derek Jacobi’s modern-dress Chorus is an almost David Attenborough-like figure as he takes us thrillingly through soundstages and locations to reveal the players within. And there’s effective dramatic license in incorporating brief flashbacks to Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 pays off beautifully in emphasising the role of Falstaff who, though he’d be highly familiar to theatregoers, would be something of a mystery to any newcomers to this film. The repurposing of “do not, when thou art King, hang a thief” equally works wonderfully.

From the sturm und drang of the battlefield, shot beautifully by Kenneth MacMillan, to the quiet wonder of the night before as the King wanders the encampment in disguise, this is a truly gripping piece of cinema and a fabulous adaptation of a play that I’m now hungry to see again…so thank the Lord that it is the glorious Michelle Terry who will be taking on the title role at the Open Air Theatre in the summer!