Friday, December 1, 2017

Books into Misbegotten Movies: Wonderstruck and Murder on the Orient Express

Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley and Julianne Moore in Wonderstruck.

Todd Haynes got the 1950s in Carol, but he doesn’t even come close to getting the 1920s in Wonderstruck, his movie of Brian Selznick’s children’s book, which Selznick himself adapted. The gimmick in the novel is that it cross-cuts – as anyone who has read The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) knows, Selznick is an overtly cinematic writer – between 1977 and 1927. In the 1977 scenes, a boy from rural Minnesota named Ben, who has recently lost his mother and has been taken in by his aunt and uncle, runs away to seek the man he believes is his father in New York City, following a clue he discovered among his mother’s things. In the 1927 scenes, a girl named Rose runs away from her overprotective father, first to find her famous stage- and movie-star mother Lillian Mayhew and then, when that doesn’t work out very well, her older brother Walter, who works at the Museum of Natural History. Rose was born deaf; Ben was born deaf in one ear, but he’s struck by lightning that takes away the hearing in his other one. That’s a hint of, or perhaps a metaphor for, the greater connection they turn out to share when the two stories come together.

The book, published in 2011, has some poignancy and charm, but it didn’t enchant me the way Hugo Cabret did, perhaps because it recycles all the tropes from the earlier book: the lost parent, the child living a fugitive existence, the unexpected entrance of a new friend, the power of art – museums operate here like movies in Hugo Cabret. And as in the earlier book, which furnished the source material for the incandescent Martin Scorsese movie HugoSelznick relies as much on illustrations as on language to tell his story. In Wonderstruck, the fact that Rose’s childhood adventure story is rendered entirely in drawings links up with her inability to hear the world around her; she hasn’t yet learned to sign either, so – like Ben, who can speak, of course, but has never had to learn to sign – she’s really isolated. Haynes’s idea for the Rose section in the movie is to make it look and sounds like a silent movie, only without intertitles; at least, that’s what he thinks he’s doing. The truth is that he doesn’t capture the rhythm of silent movies and except for lovely Millicent Simmonds as Rose, who’s the best thing in the picture, the actors don’t feel like silent actors, just modern actors in period costumes whose voices, annoyingly, we can’t hear. Even Julianne Moore as Lillian Mayhew seems all wrong.

The 1977 scenes are more convincing but not much better, because neither Oakes Fegley, who plays Ben, nor Jaden Michael, who plays Jamie, who befriends him at the Museum of Natural History, brings much vibrancy to their scenes. They come across as flat and prosaic, like something in a young-adult TV sitcom. The movie gets a bit of a lift when Moore reappears as the older Rose – a role she seems far more suited to play; she infuses her scenes with a sense of mystery that the movie needs badly. But it’s not enough. Almost nothing Haynes tries in the film seems to work. When Rose and Ben become acquainted, she takes him to the museum where she works, the Queens Museum of Art, and leads him through a room-sized panorama of Manhattan that Haynes embellishes with miniatures of the characters whose faces are in the shape of cameo photographs. I liked the panorama but the cameo faces are so ugly that they come across as kitschy and almost sinister – unlike the Barbie and Ken dolls Haynes used in his 1988 short Superstar to tell the story of Karen Carpenter, where the effect was unexpectedly affecting. In Wonderstruck Haynes’s aim is so off the mark that the movie makes you feel trapped and restless.

Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express.

I realize that Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery Murder on the Orient Express is not a literary masterpiece, but it’s baffling that no one seems capable of turning it into an entertaining movie, considering it has a clever plot, a stylish, quirky detective – Hercule Poirot, the Belgian with a mustache like an objet d’art – and a train full of colorful suspects. The first attempt, in 1974, looked gorgeous (Geoffrey Unsworth shot it, Tony Walton designed the sets and costumes) and included witty turns by Ingrid Bergman as a missionary and Vanessa Redgrave as a governess, but the director, Sidney Lumet, was too heavy-handed for the airy material. This time around the director is Kenneth Branagh, who also plays Poirot (it was Albert Finney in 1974), the photographer is Haris Zambarloukos, who shot Branagh’s Cinderella, and the production and costumes are in the capable hands of Jim Clay and Alexandra Byrne respectively. The movie is certainly sumptuous, and after a silly opening sequence where Poirot solves a mystery at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem – it seems to be an attempt at one of those James Bond openings that complete a narrative we never saw the beginning or middle of – you think you’re in for a high time. Branagh shoots the scene where, boarding the titular train, Poirot meets first Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and then Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi, wearing a trimmer mustache than Branagh) as the camera tracks his progress through the various cars from outside the window. It’s such a glamorous, tricky approach that you look forward to seeing what approach he plans to take with the other set piece sequences.

The cast is amazing, and as each of them is introduced you’re sure that they and Branagh as the director are warming up to take advantage of all their comic resources. Besides Pfeiffer, who sashays through the train like a middle-aged showgirl who still knows how to strut her stuff, and Jacobi, who underplays slyly, and Branagh himself, hauling out his best Laurence Olivier high-style mimicry, we get to see Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff, finding half a dozen ways of conveying disdain. Johnny Depp, playing an ugly American whom Poirot turns down flat when he tries to hire the world-famous detective to protect him, has boiled down the character to essence of gangster – and essence of Brooklyn; he’s hilarious. In the Ingrid Bergman part, Penélope Cruz is almost as funny as her predecessor, and she does spectacular things with her popping eyes. Willem Dafoe shows an unanticipated talent for parody as a Nazi. In the governess role, Daisy Ridley doesn’t quite have Redgrave’s star power, but she has skill and elegance; so does Leslie Odom, Jr., playing opposite her as a doctor. It took me a few minutes to place Olivia Colman (familiar to viewers of Broadchurch and The Night Manager) under her wig and German hausfrau accent – I should have recognized her by her supreme, tossed-off technique. Only Josh Gad, as Depp’s secretary, is out of his league.

But Depp’s character is killed off the first night of the journey, and then the train is derailed in the snowbound mountains – precisely the moment when Lumet’s version got stalled too – and something utterly bizarre occurs. The screenwriter, Michael Green, starts to the turn the material – which is, of course, high comedy – into tragedy. Like all Christie plots, Murder on the Orient Express eventually reveals a story of high emotion; there has to be some, obviously, for a murder to take place. But it’s just a dash of melodrama to give Poirot something to solve. Green takes it so seriously that you wonder if someone knocked him on the head while he was reading the book; it’s hard to think of a screenplay that’s so out of whack with its source material. Branagh becomes increasingly desperate to find ways to save the movie by shooting scenes unconventionally (like the discovery of Depp’s character’s body, which he shoots from the air, framing it so that we never see Depp at all), and his approach begins to feel affected. And the actors can’t do much to help – especially not Branagh, whose Poirot, in one particularly lunatic moment, offers to sacrifice himself to make the story turn out better for the other characters. The one who comes closest to making a difference is Pfeiffer. Her performance keeps getting better and she has a moment in the climactic scene that takes your breath away. This is such a smart crew of actors that you wonder what the hell they might have thought when they read the script. I hold out hope that a few of them shook their heads in disbelief before opting to soldier ahead.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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