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. Continue reading “Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)”

TV Review: The Crown, Series 1

“To do nothing is the hardest job of all” 

It’s taken a little time to getting round to watching all of The Crown because, in a first for me, I found it impossible to binge-watch the show. Even with Netflix kindly providing offline downloads just at the point where I had a lot of travelling to do, Peter Morgan’s drama was lots of fun to watch but rarely captured the buzzy energy that has accompanied much online programming. Because it many ways it isn’t like much of Netflix’s previous output, it really is an encroachment into BBC Sunday night and as such, I felt it worked best spread out in almost weekly installments.

That’s partly down to the nature of the subject material, we’re not likely to get many surprises in a detailed retelling of the history of the House of Windsor. But it is also due to Morgan’s writing which tends a little to the formulaic, especially in the middle part of the series, which is when my interest was most in danger of waning. The opening two episodes started brightly but once the shock of becoming monarch was over, the rhythm became very much one of someone close to the queen has an issue and she has to weigh personal desires against public duty, the latter always winning out. Continue reading “TV Review: The Crown, Series 1”

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.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Henry V (1989)”

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

“You take pleasure then in the message?”

The good bits of Much Ado About Nothing, when done well, are so very good indeed, that it is sometimes hard to remember that the play has its dodgier moments too, for me at least. And it is none more so evident than in Kenneth Branagh’s beautifully sun-kissed adaptation, filmed in the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. The scenes with Dogberry and the Watch are usually problematic for me and with the broad stylings of Michael Keaton and Ben Elton here, they become unusually painful.

Thank the heavens then for Branagh and Emma Thompson, at this point midway through their six-year marriage and simply perfectly suited as sparring paramours Benedick and Beatrice. They spark off each other beautifully, making us believe in their spontaneous wit and all-too-human fallibility and you could watch them for days. Thompson plays up Beatrice’s bruised heart superbly as once bitten, twice shy, she prowls around Branagh’s amusedly careworn Benedick, who eventually deepens into real grace once the stakes are raised. Continue reading “Review: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)”

DVD Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

“I feel so absolutely stumped on the floor”

Proving that not even Kenneth Branagh is infallible when it comes to Shakespearean adaptations, this musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost sees him really come a cropper. Relocating the story to 1939 on the eve of the Second World War and swapping out three-quarters of Shakespeare’s text for a handful of Cole Porter songs to evoke the feel of a classic Golden Age musical, it is a curiously insubstantial enterprise and at its worst, somewhat smug.

It doesn’t help that the play itself ain’t a classic, as evidenced by the rarity with which it is produced but still, the approach here just doesn’t work. There’s a game cast of actors who are clearly up for it but their every weakness in singing and dancing is left exposed, there’s a paucity of triple threats here which just leaves you wondering why bother? And when you see the amazing moves of Adrian Lester or the sweet tones of Alessandro Nivola’s voice, you get hints of what might have been. Continue reading “DVD Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)”

DVD Review: As You Like It (2006)

“We are not all alone unhappy”

As the fifth of his big screen Shakespeare adaptations, there’s a slight sense of Kenneth Branagh chomping at the bit, determined to do things differently whether they work or not. Not content with mutating Love’s Labour’s Lost into a 1930s musical, he then turned his hand to a more beloved play in As You Like It and adopted another approach, relocating it – notionally at least – to the striking world of late 19th century Japan.

There, the characters are turned into merchants seeking a foothold in the newly opened up trading routes and the battle between Dukes Senior and Frederick is over control of the family business. But aside from the wrestling match being turned into a sumo contest, there’s disappointingly little real purchase in this new world. Once in the forest, it could be any old Arden and the opportunity to explore something differently culturally is abandoned.  Continue reading “DVD Review: As You Like It (2006)”

DVD Review: My Week With Marilyn

“I thought you hated all that Royal Court stuff” 

I never quite got round to watching My Week With Marilyn when it was released in late 2011: it came out at a busy theatre time (as if there’s any other time for me) and clearly I wasn’t in a particularly cinematic frame of mind as this kind of film would normally be catnip to me with its combination of old-school Hollywood and a British thesp-heavy cast. So I’ve only just gotten round to watching it now and though it clearly contains a performance of exceptional grace and ingenuity in Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I was surprised at how lightweight the film was as a whole. 

Based on two books by Colin Clark, a young man so determined to make a career for himself in the film industry that he managed to wangle his first job as a production assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a film directed by and co-starring Lawrence Olivier. But working with such a megastar as Monroe does not prove easy: her personal demons constantly threaten to overwhelm her, exacerbating her already-troubled new third marriage to Arthur Miller, and her over-reliance on her acting coach causes much tension as she ends up delaying the making of the film time and time again. In the midst of all the chaos, she lights upon Clark, who is completely bewitched by his idol, as an emotional crutch and he ends up spending a week escorting her about and providing some light escapism from her life.  Continue reading “DVD Review: My Week With Marilyn”

Review: Henry V, Noël Coward

“What art thou, thou idle ceremony?”

Early days for the final instalment in Michael Grandage’s season at the Noël Coward and another return to Shakespeare. But the Jude Law-starring Henry V did little to entertain, not helped by an abortive start which meant the opening scenes had to be replayed, with a production that is full of Acting with a capital A but little sense of theatrical vibrancy. Truth be told, I think I’m done with the play for a while – last year saw a slew of adaptations, some more successful than others, and so it doesn’t feel like a necessary addition to our stages (though I appreciate not everyone will be in quite the same position.)

 
Part of the problem is soon apparent with the sneaking suspicion that we’ve been here before. Longtime collaborator Christopher Oram’s distressed wood set recalls the Donmar’s Lear, the throne as icon imagery their Richard II. Ashley Zhangazha’s Chorus arrives onstage in modern dress (with what looks suspiciously like a Viva Forever t-shirt) but this is a red herring as the play is performed in classic dress, although Law’s soldier King is frequently attired in some distractingly tight-fitting trouser-wear.  Continue reading “Review: Henry V, Noël Coward”

Review: Cause Célèbre, Old Vic

“That damned woman”

Cause Célèbre is perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited events of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations, being directed by Thea Sharrock who helmed the multi-Olivier-winning After the Dance at the National Theatre last year. She brings this play, the last to be written by Rattigan in 1976 before his death the next year, to the Old Vic featuring the return to the stage of Anne-Marie Duff, alongside Niamh Cusack and a large supporting cast. This was a preview performance and I attended as part of the What’s on Stage group outing.

The play is based on the 1930s real-life story of Alma Rattenbury, a woman nearly 40 accused and put on trial for murdering her elderly husband along with her 18-year old lover. Society was scandalised and enthralled by the trial, not necessarily because of the crime but because of the moral profligacy that was perceived in Alma taking such a young lover, and one who was her servant to boot, and it is the attitudes of society that Rattigan focuses on. He introduces the fictionalised character of Edith Davenport into the narrative, a woman of very traditional values who is the forewoman of the jury hearing Alma’s case, yet who is struggling with her own issues as she is divorcing her feckless husband and dealing her son who has inherited his father’s taste for debauchery (as she sees it), a crucial point being that he is the same age as Alma’s lover, something which clouds her judgement from the start. Continue reading “Review: Cause Célèbre, Old Vic”