Kenneth Branagh

Death on the Nile

12/02/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Kenneth Branagh earned himself a lot of brownie points for the sublime Belfast, but quickly squanders most of them in this, his second Agatha Christie adaptation. While it’s a definite improvement on his previous attempt, Murder on the Orient Express (which suffered from a bad case of too many actors in cameo roles), it still struggles to escape from the suffocating confines of the genre.

Mind you, it opens with a totally unexpected sequence set in the First World War, where we meet a digitally de-aged Poirot as a solider in the trenches, already flexing his powers of deduction. And then we are offered an origin story for that famous moustache. Interesting…

But all too soon, the action has moved on to 1937 and more familiar territory. Poirot is in a nightclub, fussing over some desserts, listening to blues singer Salome Otterburn (Sophie Okonedo) and watching as a certain Simon Doyle indulges in some rather dirty dancing with his fiancée, Jacqueline de Belfort (Emma McKey). The fact that Doyle is played by the recently disgraced Armie Hammer is, um, awkward, to say the least (and when I reflect that the previous film had a pivotal role for Johnny Depp, it makes me wonder is there isn’t some kind of ‘Curse of the Christies’ going on here).

Anyway, six weeks later, Doyle is climbing aboard a cruise ship in Egypt with his new bride… Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot). Things get even more uncomfortable when Jacqueline arrives and spends her time glaring balefully at the newly weds over the lobster and fizzy wine. Honestly, if looks could kill!

Okay, this is Christie territory, so it’s a hardly a spoiler to say that somebody winds up murdered, which puts a proper crimp on the festivities. The perpetrator could be any of the passengers, all of them played by well know faces: Annette Bening, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Russell Brand, Letitia Wright. Place your bets, folks – unless, like me, you saw the 1978 version or have read the book, and already know whodunnit.

Which, I must confess, spoils it somewhat.

It’s all handsomely done and this time around there’s enough focus on the various players to make it feel that they’re more than just cardboard cutouts. Egypt is lovingly recreated in CGI and the shameful opulence of the era is shown in unflinching detail. Here is an age where somebody can throw the contents of a champagne glass into the Nile and declare ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’ while starving people watch in silence from the river bank.

Okay, it was a different time, but at the end of the day, this feels hopelessly antiquated and badly in need of updating. Diehard Christie fans will doubtless tell themselves that Branagh has done his subject proud, and yes, perhaps he has – but I for one will be in no great hurry to see another Poirot movie. Unless, that is, it can offer something more unexpected than an origin story for some facial hair.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Belfast

21/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film, Belfast, opens in supremely confident style.

We are presented with sleek, full-colour images of the city as it is now – the kind of scenes that might grace a corporate promotional video. And then the camera cranes up over a wall and, suddenly, we’re back in the summer of ’69, viewing events in starkly contrasting monochrome, as children run and play happily in the streets of humble terraced houses.

Amongst them is Buddy (Jude Hill), eight years old, wielding a wooden sword and a dustbin-lid shield. But the serenity of the scene is rudely disrupted by the arrival of a gang of masked men brandishing blazing torches and Molotov cocktails, extremist Protestants come to oust the Catholics who have dared to dwell on these streets. Buddy and his family are Protestant too and have happily lived alongside their Catholic neighbours for years, but now find themselves swept up in the ensuing violence.

It’s a powerful moment as we witness Buddy’s terror, the unexpected suddenness of this sea change literally freezing him in his tracks.

Then a gentler story begins to unfold, and we witness key events through Buddy’s naïve gaze. We are introduced to his Ma (Caitriona Balfe), to the father he idolises (Jamie Dornan), to his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hands), and to the various neighbours and acquaintances who live in his familiar neighbourhood, a world he cherishes, suddenly transformed into something ugly and unpredictable.

Buddy’s father, a joiner by trade, works away from home in England, struggling to pay off his crushing tax debts. He’s keen to leave the city of his birth, to forge a new life for the family in England – but his wife is reluctant to leave and Buddy is obsessed with staying close to the girl at school he’s fallen in love with and hopes to marry one day.

Besides, how could he even think of leaving his beloved grandparents behind?

Branagh writes and directs here and handles both crafts with consummate skill, walking with ease the perilous tightrope between affection and sentimentality. Happily, he rarely puts a foot wrong. Buddy’s formative experiences include a visit to the theatre to see A Christmas Carol (with a lovely final performance from John Sessions – to whom the film is dedicated) and regular forays to the cinema, where we see extracts from Westerns High Noon and The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance. (If a cinema showing of One Million Years BC doesn’t exactly tie-in with the year in which the film is set, well no matter. Buddy is an unreliable narrator and his memories are built on uncertain foundations.)

I love Belfast. It’s a classy production, from the vintage Van Morrison soundtrack to the brilliant performances from the supporting cast. Young Jude Hill is simply perfect as Buddy, offering up a range of emotions that challenge the abilities of veteran performers Dench and Hinds. Watch out for some delicious Easter eggs that point to Branagh’s destiny. This film is all about formative experiences, the kind that shape a young boy’s future forever.

Belfast is an absolute joy, ready to be sampled at cinemas across the UK.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Tenet

26/08/20

You have to feel a wee bit sorry for Christopher Nolan. He is the first film director of stature to pop his head above the parapet post-lockdown, and so Tenet has the daunting task of being the flag bearer, the film expected to tempt cinema-goers back into the multiplexes en masse. Both the Bond franchise and Disney’s Mulan, have recently baulked at the responsibility and who can blame them?.

Interestingly, it’s a Bond movie that most springs to mind watching Tenet, though it would be 007 On Acid, given that its plot elements are so incomprehensible, I feel singularly unqualified to say much about them. (Sadly, I don’t possess a PHD in quantum physics.) Suffice to say that Nolans’s regular obsession with time (and the manipulation of it) are taken to their ultimate conclusion here. The result is mind bending – and not always in a good way.

The hero of the film, a CIA operative known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is first encountered as a member of a team carrying out a (frankly baffling) assignment in the Kiev Opera House. After that, he is recruited for a special assignment, which is referred to only by the palindromic title and a certain hand gesture. It’s all about the reversal of time or, as one character puts it, ‘entropy’. What ensues is a whole series of action set-pieces, where fights, car chases and even explosions can run forwards or backwards – often simultaneously.

The Protagonist soon finds himself teamed with the more modestly monikered Neil (Robert Pattinson) and, shortly after that, becomes increasingly enmeshed in the lives of the enigmatic Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband, power-mad Russian arms dealer, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). Andrei, it seems, has the power to end the world as we know it, and The Protagonist has been handed the job of putting a stop to his shenanigans – so, no great pressure there…

There’s no doubting the sheer scale and ambition of this work and there’s certainly plenty of brain-scrambling action on offer, but Nolan doesn’t do himself any great favours with the complexity of the plot and the fact that much of the expository dialogue is obscured by an overly intrusive soundtrack, courtesy of Ludwig Göronsson. Washington doesn’t really have the opportunity to emote enough for us to care what happens to him, while Branagh’s snarling, bellowing Andrei veers dangerously close to caricature. Debicki is good though, and Pattinson manages to exude a suave, laidback charm, which helps no end.

I find myself alternately enjoying parts of this and feeling frustrated by others. While I’m generally the last person to favour ‘easy’ stories, I’m not convinced that this is the kind of material designed to tempt Joe Public back to the cinema – though I also have to add that it did feel wonderful to be back there, even if this isn’t the best Christopher Nolan film ever (that would be The Prestige, by the way. Thanks for asking).

If you’re looking for something big, loud and packed with action, Tenet is probably the logical choice – just don’t expect to understand everything you see.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

All Is True

09/01/19

All Is True is a gentle affair and, actually, a perfect Sunday afternoon film. You know what I mean: it’s one to settle down in front of when you’ve eaten too much dinner and you want to engage with something clever but not challenging, fun but not frenetic. It’s a quality piece; how could it not be with its fine pedigree? With Kenneth Branagh starring and directing; with Judi Dench supporting; with Ben Elton providing the script? (Okay, I know Elton has his naysayers, but there’s no denying he’s good at this historical comedy stuff. Blackadder is still up there, I think, and Upstart Crow is pretty decent too.)

It’s the tale of William Shakespeare’s latter years, back in Stratford with his family after living apart from them in London. But now his theatre – the Globe – has gone up in flames, destroyed by a misfired prop cannon; he’s lost his mojo and he needs somewhere quiet to lick his wounds. Returning home also gives him the belated chance to mourn his dead son, Hamnet, who died of the plague while his father was away, and to repair his fractured relationship with his daughters and his wife. But there is scandal in small towns as well as in cities, and Will’s no stranger to it. His own father was a thief, and now his daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is caught up in a lawsuit, accused of adultery.

Interestingly, this is the second fictional interpretation we’ve seen of this affair (the recorded facts are sparse, but we do know that her accuser was found guilty of slander and excommunicated for his lies) – the first, The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, was performed at The Lowry in 2016 – you can read our review of it here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2016/04/02/the-herbal-bed/.

But Elton’s scope is wider than Whelan’s, focusing too on the strange details of Hamnet’s death, and his twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder)’s reaction to it, as well as on Shakespeare’s own insecurities as a grammar-school educated merchant’s son, occasionally mocked by the upper-class university graduates he counts as his peers.  There’s a meandering quality to the movie that suits its Stratford setting; the light is gorgeous and the period is beautifully evoked. It’s funny too, and informative. There’s no denying it’s a slight piece of work, a little bit of whimsy to while away the hours, but it’s entertaining and engaging, and, provided you’re not in the mood for something more demanding, perfectly enjoyable.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Murder on the Orient Express

03/11/17

Let’s face it, we know what we are going to get with this one. Agatha Christie’s story is a classic of its kind, and Poirot’s style of detection a thing of wide repute. The trailer makes it clear that this incarnation doesn’t stray far from the cosy murder-as-family-entertainment tradition, so we settle in for a glossy, star-studded slice of nostalgia; we know it won’t be challenging but we think it might be fun.

And it is fun, to a point. It’s handsomely done, with glorious vistas, and the opening scenes in Istanbul are wonderfully vibrant, teeming with life and energy. Kenneth Branagh is convincing as Poirot, as pedantic and idiosyncratic as Christie paints him in her books. And the unthinking decadence of the upper classes is beautifully clear, their sumptuous surroundings barely noted, the train’s luxury accepted and dismissed.

It’s a shame, then, that we never feel any sense of claustrophobia, even when the train breaks down, and everyone is trapped in the middle of nowhere, even when the sleazy Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered. I won’t give any spoilers here, just in case,  although I imagine most people know the plot; suffice it to say, I know there are reasons why the suspects’  reactions are not as we might initially expect, but still… No one really mixes; no one seems irritated with anyone else; they’re all so separate, as if they’re not in close proximity. It’s all plot and no character, despite the starry cast.

The starry cast is a problem too. They’re all magnificent, but I only know that from their other work, not from what they do here. There’s nothing for them to do. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Caroline Hubbard, is perhaps the luckiest; there’s some substance here, so she can milk her role. But to under-use actors as fine as Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz et al is criminal: these are all essentially cameos.

In the end, sadly, this is just a pointless remake of what is – sorry, Agatha fans – a silly story. It’s not awful – everything is bigger here, including Poirot’s moustache – it’s just not very good.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Mindhorn

05/05/17

Here’s a bit of an oddity – a movie shot on the Isle of Man, that isn’t pretending to be Scotland or Ireland or Monte Carlo, but actually is, of all things, the Isle of Man. That’s because the location was the regular haunt of fictional 80s cop, Mindhorn (think a cross between Bergerac and the Six Million Dollar Man and you’re pretty much there). But time has moved on and actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Baratt) has lost his hair, developed a beergut and is finding it increasingly difficult to land decent acting work, reduced now to advertising corsets and support stockings. This is doubly annoying considering his old co-star, Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan) has managed to string out his spin-off series, Windjammer for eight successful seasons and still lives on the island in unabashed luxury.

Thorncroft thinks he sees an opportunity to revitalise his own career, when a suspected serial killer, who calls himself ‘The Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey) announces to the police that he will talk to only one person – Mindhorn himself. Thorncroft heads back to his old stamping ground and begins to reconnect with people from his past – not least, his regular love interest on the series, Patricia Deville (Essie Davies) who now lives with Thorncroft’s old stunt stand in, Clive (Simon Farnaby). But as the events unfold, the former star is drawn into a bit of amateur sleuthing – and it becomes apparent that things may not be exactly what they seem…

Mindhorn may not be big on belly laughs, but it’s a decent comedy thriller with an appealing central premise and it’s shot through with a genuine sense of pathos. Thorncroft’s desperate need to rekindle his former star power verges on desperation only leads him, inevitably into deeper humiliation. The film boasts a starry cast, including Andrea Riseborough, Simon Callow, Harriet Walter and (in an uncredited cameo) Kenneth Branagh, who enjoys one of the film’s most outrageous scenes. Barrett makes a convincing transition to leading man and Essie Davies is also terrific as Mindhorn’s lost love. It’s clear from the outset that the two of them have some unfinished business.

So yes, enjoyably silly stuff. Make sure you stay till the end of the credits for a showing of Mindhorn’s wonderfully naff power ballad, You Can’t Handcuff the Wind, the dreadful lyrics of which may just be worth the price of admission alone.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Winter’s Tale

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Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company Plays at the Garrick 

Live Cinema Screening

26/11/15

The Winter’s Tale is something of a curiosity, the work, it seems, of a playwright who was still experimenting even as he neared the end of his career. Like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale contains romance as well as realism, and attempts to fuse the yin and yang of theatre, encompassing both comedy and tragedy. And, although this play is arguably more uneven than The Tempest, it is, nevertheless, a delight to watch, particularly when performed and directed with such poise.

Live cinema screenings are a godsend to those of us who don’t live in London, allowing us access to plays we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. But the format does have its limitations, most notable in this production in the lighting. Presumably the audience at the Garrick could see perfectly well, but the low lighting didn’t translate well to the big screen, making the whole of the first half rather difficult to discern; indeed, even the lighter, brighter second half seemed curiously muted, considering its lively and pastoral nature.

This aside, the production worked well. Branagh’s is a traditional interpretation of the play, performed with scholarly precision rather than flights of fancy, playing to the strengths of its distinguished cast and crew. Judi Dench is a fine Paulina – of course she is – and Branagh (equally predictably) makes a convincing Leontes. The contrasts – between town and country, prince and pauper, repression and ebullience – are all writ large, and there’s both charm and energy aplenty here.

Why then am I sighing or shrugging when people ask me what I thought of this? I suppose it just seems like I’ve seen it all before: this is a proficient and assured production, but there’s nothing new or exciting about the way it’s done. Maybe there doesn’t need to be; I’m sure there are many theatre-goers who would see this as a positive and, certainly, I’m not a fan of innovation for innovation’s sake. Still, it all feels just a little too familiar to stir enthusiasm.

A good production, but not a thrilling one.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield