There's no question that acclaimed actor-director Kenneth Branagh's latest cinematic opus -- the big-screen adaptation of famed author Agatha Christie's classic novel "Murder on the Orient Express" -- is rolling strong in theaters domestically and overseas, having already amassed an impressive global tally of $275 million with no signs of slowing down.
As movie fans have found out, Branagh becomes Christies' time-honored Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who boards the Orient Express simply as a mode of transport to get back home to London but finds himself investigating a mysterious murder where everyone on the train is suspect.
With a huge presence in front of and behind the camera, Branagh's fingerprints are all over "Murder on the Orient Express," including the area of songwriting, a place he's only ventured to once before.
The first time around, Branagh and his collaborator of nearly 30 years, film composer Patrick Doyle, (along with music producer Tommy Danvers) wrote "Strong," the end-title song for the 2015 blockbuster "Cinderella." Now, with "Murder on the Orient Express," Branagh has put his pen to paper once again for the lyrics to "Never Forget," the haunting end credits song for which Doyle wrote the music.
In a phone conversation with the actor-filmmaker this week, Branagh discussed "Never Forget," an ethereal ballad sung by his co-star Michelle Pfeiffer. The song serves as an elegy for the tragic loss of a character at the heart of the film's narrative.
"They say, 'Music is a vehicle for transcendence so that one can commune with God.' That saying relates to music and lyrics (like ours), which talk about this incredible loss at the center of the film. To console is part of what people do to ease that suffering," Branagh said. "And if the characters in this story are going to leave that train and have some future journey in their lives, some of the healing that Poirot talks about in the film is going to have to start happening."
Branagh said "Never Forget" in a way grew from personal experiences growing up in Ireland -- feelings that were awakened by a theme Doyle incorporated into the film's score.
"It reminded me of moments in my youth when I used to hear my granny get upset," Branagh recalled. "She would sing the Irish ayre 'Danny Boy' -- she had a brother, Danny, who she had lost -- and it would make her cry every time she sang it. But it was so necessary for her to sing it because it was a way of easing that pain. It was cathartic and very therapeutic. "
Ultimately, to capture those feelings for "Never Forget," Branagh knew Pfeiffer -- who previously demonstrated her singing talent in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "Hairspray" -- could bring to the song a haunting air of heartbreak and hope rooted in the experiences of her character, Caroline Hubbard.
"We wanted some emotional closure and we knew that Michelle Pfeiffer's beautiful performance in the film could translate into music -- but not with the idea of trying to produce some dazzling vocal gymnastics -- but to experience this basic tension and beauty and melancholy in the song between the love for the innocent that is lost, and the desire to let them know that they will never be forgotten," Branagh said. "It's very simple, but it can be very profound. … It provides an emotional character closure that goes to the place we haven't been in this movie. … It's a direct appeal to and from the human heart."
While "Never Forget" certainly merits consideration this awards season for Best Original Song, "Murder on the Orient Express" easily warrants attention in several other categories -- from the picture as a whole to Branagh's expert direction and portrayal of Poirot, to Doyle's captivating score, the film's stunning cinematography and its meticulous production and costume design.
In the case of costume design, one item of note is a mustache guard for Poirot, which we see him wearing as he awakens in the morning after his first night aboard the Orient Express. An apparatus designed to keep Poirot's perfectly coiffed handlebar mustache in place, the quick shot of the mustache guard is not only good for a laugh, in a subtle way it further defines the character as a detective who strives for perfection.
"It's one of those moments where you understood the details of a lot of people's work, particularly that of Alexandra Byrne, our costume designer, who was responsible for that mustache guard, but who had also worked so closely with Carol Hemming, our makeup and hair designer -- who worked for so long and so hard for such detail on the mustache itself," Branagh enthused. "It boldly goes where few mustaches have gone before to fulfill Agatha Christie's requirement that it be one of the most 'immense' and 'magnificent' mustaches in England."