“DJANGO UNCHAINED”: Controversy and Myth

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“DJANGO UNCHAINED”: CONTROVERSY AND MYTH

Ever since the release of the 2012 Academy Award winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film,“DJANGO UNCHAINED” has been the target of a good deal of backlash and derision. Wait . . . I take that back. The film has received a good deal of derision even when it first reached the movie theaters during the early winter of 2012-2013.

Normally, I would have dismissed these negative comments. After all, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” became one of my favorite movies for the year 2012. It also proved to be a box office hit and won two Academy Awards – a Best Supporting Actor award for actor Christoph Waltz and a Best Original Screenplay award for Tarantino. So, why am I bothering to write this article about the film? If I must be honest, I recently read a few articles about the movie. Several accused Tarantino of writing a revenge fantasy on the topic of American slavery. I also came across one or two that compared it to the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, Steve McQueen’s “12 YEARS A SLAVE” . . . to the detriment of the former film. And I found myself becoming confused and rather annoyed. And when I get pissed off – even in regard to arts and entertainment – I have a tendency to react. This article is my reaction.

One of the major complaints against the movie was its depiction of violence. Okay . . . this is Quentin Tarantino, we are talking about. I have yet to come across a film of his that did not feature violence. Many of his previous films – including“RESERVOIR DOGS”, “KILL BILL” and “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS” – featured over-the-top violence. After twenty years of this, why did so many film critics raise a stink about the violence in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? After all, the movie’s plot revolved around American slavery, upon which a great deal of violence was used to sustain it. And the system also produced a good deal of violence from many who tried to resist it. Surely these film critics were aware of this? Surely they were aware of the numerous slave rebellions – at least around 250 of them – that had occurred in North America between the Colonial Era and the eve of the Civil War. And I am not simply referring to the more well-known slave rebellions such as the 1811 German Coast Uprising, along with those planned by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner?

A good number of people also accused the movie of being historically inaccurate. Film producer-director Spike Lee put in his two cents and declared that “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa. I will honor them.” Perhaps Lee’s ancestors never saw the American West. But a good number of slaves and former slaves did . . . even before the outbreak of the Civil War. The movie’s opening scene featured Django as part of a slave coffle being marched across Texas to one of the slave marts of that particular state. And guess what? Such incidents happened – especially during the Civil War, when many slave owners sent their slaves west to Texas to avoid being conscripted by the Confederate government to labor on behalf of its military. Slaves who attempted to runaway were punished in many various forms – including whippings like the one endured by Django’s wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft and nearly endured by one of Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett’s slaves. The experiences of American slaves are so varied that I find myself wondering why Lee and many like him believed that nearly all slaves had only one particular experience – that of a laborer on a large-scale cotton plantation. Was the idea of a former slave becoming a bounty hunter that hard to believe? Would these same critics have felt the same if they knew about Nancy Gooch, a Missouri slave who had accompanied her master to California during Gold Rush . . . and later became a free woman when that state joined the Union? What would they say if they knew that she and her husband eventually became well off and owners of Johann Sutter’s mill (site of James Marshall’s discovery of gold)? Would they have felt the same if they had remembered the experiences of James Beckwourth, a Virginia-born slave who became a mountain man, explorer and fur trader; following his emancipation around 1824? Considering the varying experiences of Nancy Gooch, James Beckwourth and other slaves throughout U.S. history, why would anyone believe there was only one kind of experience? Former slaves – even before the Civil War – have become social activists, businessmen/businesswomen, authors and even slave owners. So, why would the idea of a pre-Civil War emancipated slave becoming a bounty hunter be dismissed as a fantasy?

Nearly a year ago, I had commented that with the release of “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, many have compared it to“DJANGO UNCHAINED” . . . and to the detriment of the latter. Look, everyone has their own views on what constitutes a good movie. If one prefers the 2013 film to the 2012 one, fine. The problem is that I have great difficulty in accepting the view that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” is superior to “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Film critics and many others argue that the 2013 film is superior because it is a drama based upon historical fact. The film is a historical film biography about a free black man from antebellum New York, who was kidnapped into slavery and experienced nearly twelve years as a slave in Louisiana. As for “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, it is not biopic about a historical figure. The characters in the film, including Django Freeman, Dr. King Schultz, and Calvin Candie are all figments of Quentin Tarantino’s imagination. And as far as many are concerned, there is only one way to make a film about slavery. – a story based upon historical fact.

I might as well be frank. I noticed that the plot for “DJANGO UNCHAINED” had a few discrepancies. The movie’s narrative claimed that it began in 1858 – Two Years Before the Civil War. Actually, the year 1858 is three years before the war’s outbreak, not two. Also, Tarantino made another blooper with the movie’s time setting. Django and Schultz accompanied Candie to Candyland in early May 1858 . . . at least according to a scene that featured Candie’s head slave Stephen writing out a check for supplies. It is quite obvious that Tarantino got his time frame a little off. Was “DJANGO UNCHAINED” set between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859? Or was it set between the fall of 1857 and the spring of 1858? Who knows? Many critics and historians made a big deal about the presence of “Mandingo fighting” in“DJANGO UNCHAINED”. So did I. Like many others, I had claimed that there was no historical evidence of this sport ever existing. Well . . . perhaps we may have all been slightly mistaken. When author Kyle Onstott wrote his 1957 novel,“Mandingo”, he must have heard about the sport called Battle Royal that originated in Ancient Rome and reappeared in 19th century United States, and put his own spin on the sports. Although the sport of Battle Royal had consisted of three or more participants, it featured gladiatorial-style fighting that would be considered very brutal. The sport had originated in Ancient Rome and resurfaced centuries later in the first half of 19th century United States. The interesting thing is that many critics and filmgoers made a big brouhaha over the historical inaccuracies found in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. I found this attitude very hypocritical, considering that inaccuracies of this kind have been found in every historical drama I have seen, including more highly acclaimed films such as “GONE WITH THE WIND”, “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”,“GLORY”, “THE KING’S SPEECH” and the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”.

But if there is one thing that truly annoys me, it is the critics’ labeling of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” as a revenge tale. The film did feature characters either attempting or achieving revenge. The character “Big Daddy” Bennett tried to get revenge against Django Freeman and Dr. King Schultz for killing the Brittle Brothers, his overseers and wanted fugitives of the law. Dr. Schultz achieved revenge against one of the movie’s main antagonists, Calvin Candie, for the death of a Candyland slave and being cheated out of $12,000. Even Django managed to achieve revenge against the Brittle Brothers, the overseers who once worked for his original owner and some of the inhabitants at Candyland. And I believe it is possible to say that he got revenge against Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Stephen, Billy Crash and other Candie henchmen, when he returned to Candyland to save Broomhilda. But his main intent was to save Broomhilda and retrieve her freedom papers. I suspect that the revenge attempted or achieved in this film were merely consequences of the main plot. After all, both “Big Daddy” Bennett and Dr. Schultz paid consequences for their vengeful acts. And despite his original intent, Django managed to achieve some kind of revenge. But in the end, I do not believe “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is basically a revenge tale.

If Django had truly been interested in revenge, he would have gone after the very man who had punished and later separated both him and his wife Broomhilda – namely their original owner, Carruthers. And yet, Django never bothered to go after Carruthers for revenge. He never even considered it. Why? Because his main goal was to find and rescue Broomhilda, before fleeing the South. Mind you, he would have never been able to achieve this without Dr. King, who offered $75 and freedom to Django if the latter would help him track down the Brittle Brothers. Django would have never become a bounty hunter if King had not suggested he become a partner in the latter’s bounty hunting operations during the winter in exchange for helping him track down Broomhilda in the South. It was not difficult for me to see that Django’s main interest during the film’s entire narrative was being reunited with Broomhilda and fleeing the slaveholding South for good.

And I cannot help but wonder why many critics and filmgoers were determined to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED” a revenge tale? Why was it so important for them to regard it as such? Their accusations reminded me of the fears that many 19th century Americans – North and South – had about freed slaves. Many of these Americans feared emancipation because they believed those former slaves would turn on their former masters and engage in indiscriminate killings of whites. Was this same fear behind the intent of many critics to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? Because the movie featured a black man and ex-slave killing a good number of people – especially whites – to achieve his goal of permanent freedom for both himself and his wife? Is this why the media dumped this crap on the public about it being a revenge movie?

I will not deny that Django Freeman had a vindictive streak within him. The casual manner in which he stepped upon the fatally wounded slave trader Dicky Speck after the latter had insulted him, led me to suspect this. However, Django’s killing of the Brittle Brothers was more about helping Dr. King collect a bounty (and acquire his own freedom) than any revenge . . . even if the former must have felt satisfaction in killing two of the brothers. Django and Dr. King’s violent encounter with “Big Daddy” Bennett and a group of night riders was more about saving their hides. I also suspect that Django had achieved some satisfaction in his killing of some of Candyland’s inhabitants. But I still believe the entire episode was more about saving Broomhilda . . . and ensuring that no one at Candyland would alert the authorities to her disappearance. A part of me cannot help but wonder if moviegoers and critics find it easier to swallow a movie about slavery or any kind of oppression if major non-white characters were to simply endure or resort to non-violent responses. Would they have preferred if Django Freeman had resorted to non-violent means to rescue Broomhilda? He tried . . . upon King Schultz’s advice. But the latter ruined Django’s chances with a violent display of temper that led to his own death and the re-enslavement of both Django and Broomhilda. Django, in the end, had to clean Dr. Schultz’s mess . . . with violence.

Over the years, I have noticed how the American public, media and historians are willing to glorify activists like Martin Luther King for resorting to non-violent methods of resistance against oppression. Yet, at the same, these same people, media and historians glorify this country’s violent resistance to British authority in the late 18th century. And in parts of this country – especially in various Southern states – the former Confederate States of America is still glorified for its violent attempt to break away from the United States in the early 1860s. In other words, when a violent or military resistance is led by elite white males, our country glorifies this action. When non-violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our country glorifies this action. When violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our society condemns this action. And for certain critics and filmgoers, Django Freeman made the mistake of resorting to violence to win the freedom of his wife and himself.

Let me repeat myself. I do not believe that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is a revenge tale. Django’s goal in this movie was not revenge. If it was, he would have sought revenge against the character portrayed by Bruce Dern. Ironically, another movie was released near the end of 2012 – “ZERO DARK THIRTY”. What was this movie about? Namely the hunt for Bin Laden in retaliation for the attacks on September 11, 2001. “ZERO DARK THIRTY” was clearly about the U.S. government seeking revenge against Bin Laden for the attack. Even the leading character portrayed by Jessica Chastain became vengeful when another colleague and friend was killed during a meeting set up with a former terrorist. There were some critics and moviegoers who dared to accuse or criticize the movie for being a revenge tale. The mainstream media more or less avoided labeling it a “revenge flick”. Then again, I should not surprised, especially when revenge or retaliation in this film was sanctioned by society and the government. For the past victims of slavery, revenge on their behalf is not tolerated . . . even after emancipation had been achieved over a century-and-a-half ago. And especially not in a work of fiction.

As for the backlash against “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I realize that whatever negative opinions about this movie will never change. I can do nothing about it. One could also say that this article might be a waste of time. But you know what? I do not think so. For it allowed me to express my own frustrations over the negative responses to this film. And those frustrations were born from some of the criticisms and “revenge” label that was dumped on the film. It felt good to get this article out of my system . . . even if I do not end up changing any minds.

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“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

 

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“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

A Virginia-born writer named Matt Bondurant wrote a historical novel called “The Wettest County in the World” back in 2008. He based the novel on the exploits of his grandfather and two granduncles, who ran a massive moonshine operation during the later years of the Prohibition era, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Four years later, a movie version of Bondurant’s novel finally hit the movie screens at the end of the summer. 

Renamed “LAWLESS”, the movie began in 1931 in Franklin County, Virgina; where three brothers – Forest, Howard and Jack Bondurant – run a successful moonshine business with the help of their friend, Cricket Pate. The brothers use a bar as a front for their illegal activities. And not only do they provide well-made moonshine to the Franklin County locals, but also to gangsters like Floyd Banner of Chicago. Two people arrive in Franklin County that prove to have a major impact upon the lives the Bondurant brothers. The first to arrive is a Chicago dancer named Maggie Beauford, who is hired as a waitress for their bar and slowly becomes romantically involved with the oldest brother, Forest. Not long after Maggie’s arrival, a Federal Special Deputy Charly Rakes arrives in Franklin County and demands that all county bootleggers – including the Bondurants – give him a cut of their profits. Although the other bootleggers surrender to Rakes’ intimidation tactics and decide to give him a cut, Forest Bondurant refuses to do the same. Rakes and his men set out to intimidate and terrorize the Bondurants into giving him a cut of their profits. And when that fails, he decides to go after their distillery and destroy it.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest Bondurant – Jack. At the beginning of the story, Jack is an inexperienced and sometimes introverted young man, who is kept out of the family’s shine business, aside from acting as a driver for their deliveries. When Rakes gives him a severe beating as a warning to the family, Forest chides Jack for being unable to defend himself. But after Forest is nearly killed by two of Rakes’ men, Jack takes matters into his hands and sets with his friend Cricket to deliver a shipment of booze to Floyd Banner in Chicago. Jack returns with profit for the family and himself. But his newly discovered self confidence leads him to make mistakes that not only endanger his family’s moonshine operation, but also the lives of Cricket and the girl he loves, a German-American Baptist named Bertha Mannix.

“LAWLESS” turned out to be a very entertaining movie for me. But before I discuss how much I enjoyed the movie, I have to talk about its flaws. I believe that “LAWLESS” had two major flaws. One, director John Hillcoat delivered an unevenly paced movie. The first third of the movie took its time in setting up both the characters and the story. In fact, the pacing was so slow that I was in danger of either falling asleep or losing interest in the movie. I have one last complaint and it deals with the movie’s introduction of the Floyd Banner character. I found the introduction of the Banner character rather irrelevant and unnecessary. In the movie, Banner arrived in Franklin County to shoot a competitor, exchange a glance with Jack Bondurant and return to Chicago. I found the entire scene irrelevant and a skimpy excuse to introduce Gary Oldman into the film. Especially since the Floyd Banner role proved to be rather small and serve as nothing more than a plot device to increase Jack’s role as a moonshiner.

But once the movie was set up, “LAWLESS” proved to be very satisfying and entertaining. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed was the manner in which it recaptured so many details of early Depression-era Appalachian South. Hillcoat did a marvelous job in allowing the movie to permeate with atmosphere. However, Hilcoat did not achieve this superb re-creation on his own. He received help from the likes of cinematogrpher Benoît Delhomme, whose photography of the western Georgia locations struck me as breathtaking; Gershon Ginsburg’s beautiful art direction and Chris Kennedy’s production designs. I was especially impressed by Margot Wilson’s costume designs. For years, Hollywood seemed to have difficulty in re-creating accurate costumes for the early 1930. The movie industry has improved a great deal over the past decade or so. And this was especially apparent in how Wilson’s costumes not only accurately reflect the movie’s period setting, but also the character and social positions of the characters. An excellent example of this proved to be the costumes worn by Shia Labeouf. He began the movie wearing clean, yet tight fitting clothes – including pants that were obviously too short. During the movie’s second half, his wardrobe not only improved, but also became decidedly more flashy, reflecting his personal success in the moonshine business.

Although I found screenwriter Nick Cave’s introduction of the movie’s character, setting and plot rather slow; I must admit that the movie’s overall story proved to be well written. I wonder if many critics and moviegoers had suspected“LAWLESS” would end up as some dramatic version of “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD” with plenty of high-octane action and cliched Southern stock characters. Or that it would turned out to be some take on the founding of NASCAR. Thankfully, none of those scenarios came to fruition. “LAWLESS” proved to be an intelligent mixture of a well done family drama and crime saga. First of all, Cave’s script not only explored the Bondurants’ illegal activities and how it attracted the attention of the law, symbolized in the form of the corrupted Federal officer Charly Rakes. But it also explored the Bondurants themselves – the intimidating Forest, who had developed a reputation for evading death; the easy-going and hard-drinking Howard, who also possessed a hair triggered temper; and youngest brother Jack, whose inexperience, introverted nature and distaste for violence led him to be disregarded by his older brothers as a dependable participant in their moonshine business.

The producers and Hilcoat certainly picked the right actors to portray the Bondurant brothers. I hope that Shia Labeouf will finally shake off his reputation as a mere tool dominated by special effects in over-the-top action films. He did a superb job in slowly developing Jack Bondurant’s character from the insecure and immature boy to someone with a lot more confidence. I believe that Forest Bondurant might prove to be one of my favorite roles that Tom Hardy has ever portrayed. He did a marvelous job projecting an intimidating and commanding aura in his character. The character attracted a bit of a in-joke that originated with a local myth that nothing or no one call kill him. It was good to see Jason Clarke again, whom I have not seen in a movie since 2009’s “PUBLIC ENEMIES”. He was great as the easy going, yet hard drinking middle brother Howard.

I noticed that Australian actress Mia Wasikowska received a higher billing in the movie’s credits than Jessica Chastain. I am a bit surprised, considering that her role proved to be smaller. Mind you, I had no problems with her solid portrayal of Jack Bondurant’s love, Bertha Minnix. But her performance and role seemed minor in compare to Chastain, who had the juicier role as Chicago showgirl-turned-waitress, Maggie Beauford. Chastain was superb as world weary dancer who left Chicago to escape its chaos and mindless violence, only to find herself in the middle of more chaos in the form of the Bondurants’ feud with Charly Rakes. And I was especially impressed with one scene between her and Hardy, as she struggled to suppress news of the rape she had endured at the hands of Forest’s attackers. Many critics claimed that Gary Oldman had chewed the scenery in his brief appearance as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner. Aside from one moment when he lost his temper with a subordinate, I found Oldman’s performance rather subdued. And he did a pretty good job in his one major scene. I believe that many critics had managed to overlook Guy Pearce’s over-the-top performance as Federal deputy, Charly Rakes. With his slicked back hair, shaved eyebrows, exaggerated body language and effiminate manner, Pearce radiated urban eccentricity at its extreme. Yet, for some reason, the performance worked, due to Pearce’s ability to infuse a great deal of subtle menace within the exaggerated persona. The movie also benefited from some solid performances from the likes of Dane DeHaan, who portrayed Jack’s best friend Cricket Pate; Bill Camp, who portrayed Franklin County’s backbone, Sheriff Hodges; and Lew Temple as the morally questionable Deputy Henry Abshire.

I realize that “LAWLESS” is not perfect. I feel that the slow pace in the first third of the film and the unnecessary manner of the Floyd Banner character’s introduction prevented it from being a truly first-rate movie. But thanks to Nick Cave’s adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s tale, solid direction from John Hillcoat and a superb cast led by Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy, “LAWLESS” still managed to become a fascinating tale of family bonds during the last years of Prohibition . . . and one of my favorite movies of the summer of 2012.

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

Four years ago, Assaf Bernstein directed a movie about three retired Mossad agents confronted by a challenge from their past in a movie called “THE DEBT”. Just recently, John Madden directed a remake of this movie with the same title. Although originally intended for a December 2010 release date, the movie was finally released at the end of August. 

This new version of “THE DEBT” The espionage thriller began in 1997, when two retired Mossad agents, Rachel as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel Singer and Stefan Gold have received shocking news about their former colleague David Peretz. All three have been celebrated by Israel for thirty-one years for successfully tracking down a Nazi war criminal named Dieter Vogel back in 1965-55 in East Berlin. However, the reactions of both Rachel and Stefan and several flashbacks questioned whether or not if the team’s mission was accomplished.

I have never seen the 2007 version. Which means there is no way I could compare this new version to the older one. But I could say this about “THE DEBT” . . . I thought it was one of the best movies I had seen this past summer. In fact, I thought it was one of the best movies I have seen this year. “THE DEBT” is a superb thriller about a dangerous mission to capture a Nazi war criminal – a mission that led to a labyrinth of lies, guilt, regrets and a desire to correct a mistake. The sequences set in Israel and Russia of the late 1990s and in flashback sequences, 1965-66 East Berlin. The three protagonists in the film proved to be a complicated trio, haunted by not only the Holocaust, but also their personal demons and desires.

The central figure in the story is Rachel Singer, a former Mossad agent who gave up her career when she became pregnant with her only child. Rachel spends the years 1965 to 1997 being caught between two men – the team’s charismatic and womanizing leader, Stefan Gold; and the quiet and intense David Peretz. Both of them became attracted to her. But whereas Stefan viewed Rachel as a brief romance, David began falling in love with her. Rachel felt the same, but turned to Stefan for a one night stand – an act that ended up having major consequences in the relationship between the trio. In a very intense and well directed sequence, the agents finally managed to capture Vogel. But a bad encounter with East German guards at the Wollankstraße Station forced them to take Vogel back to their safe house and guard him, until they can find another way to get him to Israel. What followed was a deliciously acted cat-and-mouse game between manipulative Vogel and his three captors. The shocks and tensions continued, once the story shifted permanently to 1997. In that time frame, Rachel was forced to travel to Russia and clean up a mess caused by the major secret created by the three colleagues back in 1966. I wish I could give away the story, but to do so would give away the plot twists. All I can say is that one of the best aspects of this movie are the plot twists.

The acting was superb. Jesper Christensen, who had impressed me in the last two James Bond movies, was even more fascinating in his subtle performance as the ruthless, yet manipulative Dieter Vogel. Both Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds gave solid performances as the older Stefan and David. But the real star of the 1997 sequences was Helen Mirren, who was wonderful as an older Rachel, who believed that she had finally put the past behind her. She also proved that one could still be a first-rate female action star at the age of 65/66. If Helen Mirren was the star of the 1997 sequences, the real stars of the entire movie were Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. In my review of 2010’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, I had not been kind to Chastain’s performance in that movie. A lot of my criticism had to do with how her character was written. But I must admit that she was superb as the younger Rachel, who found herself caught up not only in a deadly mission with a dangerous adversary; but also in an emotionally confusing situation between two men. Cskokas gave an enlightening performance as the colorful and commanding Stefan, whose extroverted facade hid an ambitious drive that made him willing to do anything to maintain his career. It was good to see Sam Worthington in a first-rate role after nearly two years. His portrayal of David Peretz was probably the most intense in the entire episode. Worthington did a superb job of conveying not only David’s quietly expressed desire for Rachel, but also his reluctance to get emotionally involved with others following the loss of his entire family during the Holocaust.

If “THE DEBT” had one flaw – at least for me, it was the ending. I have to be honest. I usually do not mind if a movie ends on an ambiguous or vague note . . . as long as it works. For me, such an ending worked for the 2010 movie, “INCEPTION”. The vague note on which “THE DEBT” ended, failed to work for me. It simply did not feel right and I had the suspicion that either Madden or screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Eduardo Rossoff were trying to be just a little too artistic. And “THE DEBT” struck me as the type of story that did not need an ambiguous ending of that kind.

Despite the movie’s unnecessarily vague ending, I must admit that I truly enjoyed “THE DEBT”. It had an exciting and fascinating story that was served well by the screenwriters, director John Madden and a superb cast led by Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. As I had stated earlier, it became one of my favorite movies of both the summer and of this year so far.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

 

 

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, ”Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Granville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army office at the beginning of the story, and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man.  Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film.  He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him.  As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the ”POIROT” series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Samuel West, Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.