A film review by Craig J. Koban November 20, 2017

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS jjj
  

2017, PG-13, 114 mins.

 

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot  /  PenÚlope Cruz as Pilar Estravados  /  Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman  /  Judi Dench as Princess Natalia Dragomiroff  /  Johnny Depp as Samuel Ratchett  /  Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen  /  Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot  /  Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard  /  Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham  /  Derek Jacobi as Edward Masterman  /  Lucy Boynton as Countess Elena Andrenyi  /  Sergei Polunin as Count Rudolph Andrenyi  /  Olivia Colman as Hildegarde Schmidt  /  Tom Bateman as Mr. Bouc  /  Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Biniamino Marquez  /  Marwan Kenzari as Pierre Michel  /  Miranda Raison as Sonia Armstrong

Directed by Kenneth Branagh  /  Written by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie

 

 

 

There have been so many countless Agatha Christie inspired whodunit murder mystery movie thrillers over the decades that one has to wonder whether or not a literal adaptation of the author's literary work, at this stage in the cinematic game, is even creatively worthwhile.  

Her 1934 classic novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS has been appropriated on the silver screen before, most famously in the Sidney Lumet directed 1973 version, not to mention a 2001 made for TV iteration.  Its underlining story of a world famous Belgium detective hunting for the culprit of a murder on a derailed European train has genre troupes so familiar to contemporary viewers that imprinting any level of innovative freshness on such well worn material is a daunting challenge. 

This is where Kenneth Branagh comes in, a filmmaker/actor that's most definitely no stranger to adapting legendary literature (see HENRY V and HAMLET), not to mention that, as of late, he has lent his esoteric hands to jumpstarting new life into old movie properties, like his very recent (and very underrated) JACK RYAN reboot and his live action version of Disney's CINDERELLA.  One thing that the Shakespearian trained auteur brings to MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a classic filmmaking elegance married with cutting edge modern day visual effects.  Shot with 65mm cameras (his first feature helmed this way in over 20 years) and featuring sumptuous and evocatively stylish art direction and production design, Branagh infuses this Christie adaptation with a refined painterly beauty, which allows it to have a lushly old fashioned vibe throughout.  Plus, Branagh channels himself into the aforementioned lead detective role with spirited relish that makes you want to see more cinematic adventures featuring him in the future.  Branagh may stumble a bit on execution in the final act and loses some sight on the characters that surround him, but he nevertheless makes this MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS both gorgeous to look at and delectably comforting to watch; this film is inviting despite its grizzly premise. 

 

 

Branagh also stages a bravura opening scene that establishes his role with effective economy and lures us into the larger plot to come.  In it we meet Branagh's Hercule Poirot (definitely not pronounced Hercules, as many mistakenly refer to him as in one of the film's best running jokes) in 1934 Jerusalem, who's revealed to us as all remarkably intelligent movie sleuths should be: meticulously measuring the size of perfectly cooked 4-minute hard boiled eggs, which appeases his anal retentive obsession to minute details...and askew ones that drive him crazy (he ends up not eating them because of their flaws in prep).  After this we see Poirot making his way to the Wailing Wall to reveal to hundreds in attendance the real culprit behind a stolen artifact.  Like a circus ringmaster, Poirot works the crowd into an intoxicated frenzy with his dizzying intellect and deductive logic before pointing his finger at the crook responsible (he also knocks him over with an exemplarily well placed cane).  From the moment we meet this eccentrically delightful creation you just want to spend the next two hours with him.    

Poirot then decides that he wants to take a much needed sabbatical away from "care, concern, or crime," but he then finds himself on board the Orient Express, where his services will ultimately be required.  He tries, albeit briefly, to use his three day voyage on the pleasure and luxury train as a short term vacation, but he finds himself right back into the thick of things when one of the passengers - a lowlife mobster played by Johnny Depth, in a refreshingly low key performance - turns up dead via multiple erratic knife wounds to the body.  A previous meeting between the dead man and Poirot revealed to him that he was a marked man due to a shady past and some duplicitous business dealings.  Springing into action after the train is delayed by derailing itself while plowing through an avalanche, Poirot starts sniffing for clues and interrogates all of the remaining passengers.  Was it the murdered criminal's right hand man (Josh Gadd)...or his butler (Derek Jacobi)...or the sex starved widow (Michelle Pfeiffer) that he had an altercation with the night before?  Then again, what about the oddly closed mouthed governess (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS' Daisy Ridley) and her secret lover/doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.)?  Complicating matters is how clues start linking themselves to a princess and her maid (Judi Dench and Olivia Colman) and a saintly missionary (Penelope Cruz).  However, something seems really fishy with a fidgety Austrian (Willem Dafoe) as well.  

All of them seem guilty. 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS elevates itself above the other many Christie movie adaptations with the grand epic scale that Branagh imbues in it.  From the first breathtaking steady cam shot that follows Poirot on one long take towards and eventually inside the train you gain a startling sensation of how painstakingly crafted the whole film is (even though, yes, the Orient Express most definitely seems like the product of digital effects, it nevertheless feels like a living and breathing secondary character here).  The fantastic attention to the aesthetic accoutrements of the era are certainly a driving force of immersing us in it, even though Branagh is a tad guilty at times of placing his actors in implausible outdoor conditions in the middle of rugged snow covered terrain without any winter gear to the point of straining credulity (one moment has Poirot questioning Ridley's governess outside the train and at a table and the mostly unprotected actors look like they were commiserating at a warm outdoor picnic).  Sometimes, the digital fakery and artificiality of the effects in the film do it a dramatic injustice. 

Thankfully, Branagh makes up for such nitpicky creative qualms by utilizing his typically stalwart directorial hand at harnessing key character interactions with the right amount of quiet and understated tension.  He does a reasonably good job at multiple character introductions, especially with Depp's gangster, who occupies one of the film's better moments of soft spoken malice as he tries to recruit Poirot, but the disgusted detective declines him with gentlemanly restraint and poise.  He also builds a few other memorable moments involving other personas, like how Pfeiffer's unnerving character that seems like she holding more than a few cards close to her chest.  Daisy Ridley also shines in the few scenes she occupies and commandingly holds her own against Branagh's intensely scrutinizing crime fighter.  Yet, one of the nagging issues with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is that it never really fully develops any of these supporting players in meaningful ways, and some (like a count and countess played by Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) are hastily introduced, then forgotten about, only then to be later revealed in the film when Branagh and the screenplay deems it convenient. 

Still, one of the sublime pleasures of sitting though MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is watching Branagh's remarkably attuned and committed performance as Poirot, whose eccentric manner, manic fussiness, keen intellect, and one of the most epic moustaches in recent movie history makes him such a fascinating person of interest.  One of the wonderful comedic nuances with Branagh's handling of Poirot is how his compulsions for absolute symmetry in all things that surround him precludes his inability to tolerate most people; it's one of the film's uproarious pleasures (you gain a sense that he would much rather be by himself and read Dickens that have to interact with people in general).  Yet, when the chips are down and foul events call upon his insurmountable genius he becomes an analytical force of nature.  Poirot is so pitch perfectly in Branagh's thespian wheelhouse and taste for the theatrical; it's one of his most purely entertaining performances in years. 

Perhaps, though, Branagh's single greatest achievement with his MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is that he makes it a relevant watch, despite a few of its obvious creative hiccups (the book's gut-punching finale as to whodunit never really seems to pack the same dramatic wallop here).  Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how entrenched I was in this murder mystery, mostly because Branagh, like a consummate cinematic showman that he is, never settles on nickel and diming his audiences; his stylistic panache and flair is on full force both in front of and behind the camera in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which makes it a journey worth taking.   

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