Kenneth Branagh On an Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe: 'People Want More'

Toronto Sun, 24 February 2018
By Mark Daniell

If you think that your local multiplex can’t possibly handle another cinematic universe, Sir Kenneth Branagh would like to politely disagree with you.

After directing and starring as the mustachioed lead character Detective Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s 'Murder on the Orient Express', the 57-year-old is envisioning a Poirot-Christie “cinematic universe” that can compete with the films Marvel and DC are offering.

“With 66 books and short stories and plays, I think Agatha Christie’s output invites the consideration of it,” Branagh says down the line from London.

The tense whodunit, which hits Blu-ray this Tuesday, about a murder that happens aboard a luxurious train that gets derailed by a vicious snowstorm, showcases an all-star cast that includes Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer.

“Everything you associate with Agatha Christie — spectacular locations, vivid characters and very violent, passionate stories — it’s all there in (the movie). For me, it’s such a gripping, grab-you-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck kind of story,” Branagh says.

“It’s different from her other books,” he continues. “Her other books are all equally good, but that dynamite combination of the place, the people and the story is hard to beat in this one.”

After the film’s $350 million box-office haul, Branagh will reprise his role as Poirot in an adaptation of Christie’s 1937 novel, 'Death on the Nile'. The sequel is already in pre-production and will hit cinemas on Nov. 8, 2019.

“The strong sense I had in my mailbag was people wanted to go on different journeys with Poirot and experience more of this universe,” Branagh says.

The supplements on the Blu-ray release of 'Murder on the Orient Express', which was shot on 65 mm film — a rarity nowadays — will give fans a chance to delve further into the world of Poirot and Agatha Christie with 90 minutes of extras that include deleted scenes and a short documentary on the writer.

“This was a movie that just kept playing and playing, much to my delight. It was something that was one of those word-of-mouth pictures and it played across all age groups and it had people leaning forward wanting to know more about these characters,” he says.

“You feel as though there is a world that she’s created.”

In a rare interview with the Sun, Branagh, who first made a name for himself directing a film version of Shakespeare’s 'Henry V' in 1989, talked further about directing the famous ensemble cast, his own decades-long career and why he’s holding out hope to one day play a Bond villain.

There’s dozens of Hercule Poirot stories, why was 'Murder on the Orient Express' the perfect one to reintroduce this character to a new generation of moviegoers?

It’s such an exciting title, I think. It’s glamorous, it’s urgent and it conjures up this golden age of travel. And it has a classic group of elements. It’s got a confined space, an epic landscape and 12 characters who might have committed murder. But it’s different from her other books. Her other books are all equally good, but that dynamite combination of the place, the people and the story is hard to beat in this one.

As an actor, what made Hercule so delicious to play?

He’s a fantastically vivid character, well drawn across so many books and short stories. Christie was frustrated sometimes that he, as a successful character, overshadowed the other excellent characters that she created. But what she said about him was she liked his compassion and his ability to understand the flaws in human nature and his kindness towards others. She made him a wise and compassionate individual. So, for me, it was a wonderful combination of a character people associate with a quirky, eccentric, sometimes outlandish behaviour, and a man who is bruised by the experience of being so close to violence and death. Poirot is a character that Christie has written about in such detail that you never get to the end of him. Of all the characters I’ve played, I found him wonderful to be around and embody.

You haven’t acted as much in recent years. Were you always your own first pick to star as Poirot?

When it was pitched to me by Fox, they always kind of assumed that I would star in it and direct it. I’ve done less acting over the last few years, but I don’t love it any less. In fact, being a director is a wonderful way to study other actors. So I’ve learned a lot from watching other people and I suppose I wanted to take this opportunity to put that into practice.

You have an all-star cast in this movie — Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and more. How did you attract this roster of talent?

We knew we had to get actors who, with the limited screen time they would inevitably have, could make their mark. It needed to be an Olympic team of actors. We were fortunate enough to cast Judi Dench. She became the talismanic figure that so many other actors in this project were drawn to working with. They were all super happy to be playing the parts they were playing, but I think they all wanted to be part of an ensemble that she was the den mother for. She’s in an extraordinary position in our business and the work that she’s done, particularly in the last 20 years, has attracted massive admiration. So she became the glue that held this all together. One by one, I had conversations with Michelle and Johnny and Penelope and it was clear they all fancied the idea of doing an ensemble film and being part of an elite team.

You’re doing a sequel next year. Are you really envisioning a cinematic universe along the same lines as what Marvel and DC are doing?

Really, it’s Fox and Agatha Christie Limited who, understandably, have tremendous confidence in this vast amount of material. The prolific nature of her output means there are a lot of different stories for Poirot as well as Miss Marple and a whole gallery of other characters. You can well imagine, and she experimented with this, characters potentially interacting with one another possibly in original material. Agatha Christie Limited and Fox seem open to that.

Why did you pick 'Death on the Nile' for the follow up?

You asked about why I wanted to do 'Murder', and in thinking about 'Death on the Nile' next, there is this disturbing sexual passion at the centre of it. It’s a dangerous tale of obsessive love and the central characters are very youthful and that produces crimes of passion. And once again, she does it in extraordinary places with great spectacle.

As a director and actor, you’ve been all over the place. You’ve done Shakespeare, 'Thor', 'Cinderella', 'Frankenstein', productions on stage and you’ve been nominated for an Oscar five times. What’s been your guiding mantra over the years?

You’re always led by the story. There’s an excitement when you first uncover something new. When you get emotionally invested in the characters, there’s a feeling of wanting to share that with other people. So you look for material that makes you excited to get up in the morning and that also keeps you leaning forward. One of the great things about playing Poirot was being continually stimulated all the way through. What something like Murder has the chance to do is present reasonable human beings in extreme situations. When that happens, that really makes an audience reflect on their own life and the lives of people around you.

One of the reasons these classic stories exist and people respond to them so strongly is there’s a level of recognition that makes you question the story, the characters and yourself. For me, the mantra is about being fully engaged from start to finish and having a sense of excitement about the work.

You’ve said before that you’d like to be a Bond villain. Are you still holding out hope for that?

I think it’s a question that every English actor of a certain age gets asked. When asked, I reply simply that it would be a lovely thing to do. But I’m by no means canvassing for the opportunity. As a fan of the movies, I’ve loved the work of other people in those parts, so I’m perfectly happy to watch and, if asked, I’ll be happy to do it.

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