Film Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Everyone is a suspect!

You know what we have not seen for a while at the movies? A good old-fashioned ‘whodunit’ story. These stories did not need superheroes, vampires, zombies, or Madea—just a good mystery with a jaw dropping reveal. One of the more popular examples of this type of story was Agatha Christie’s mystery, Murder on the Orient Express. I personally haven’t read the novel itself, but I have seen the 1974 film version directed by Sidney Lumet. I found that film immensely entertaining. One can only wonder what a dignified director like Kenneth Branagh can bring to his re-imagining of the material.

In 1930’s Jerusalem, we meet Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), known to be “the world’s greatest detective” with a moustache about as subtle as Gene Shalit’s. He is traveling on the legendary Orient Express to Istanbul, looking forward to a nice sabbatical from his work. While on the train, he is approached by art dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who offers Poirot a job as his bodyguard, after receiving numerous death threats from an unknown source. Poirot politely declines.

During the night, there is an avalanche, which causes the train to derail, leaving passengers stranded far away from the next station. As if that wasn’t enough of a bump in the road, it turns out that Ratchett was murdered in the middle of the night. Poirot, to his bemusement, examines the crime scene, and discovers that this murder is somehow linked to an old case he has been following for quite some time.

The large group of suspects includes, but is not limited to the following: Ratchett’s assistant, Hector McQueen (Josh Gad); governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); widower Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.); Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid (Olivia Colman); missionary Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz); and professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe). With such a large group of suspects, will Poirot be able to find the true killer?

I just want to get this out of the way right now: this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, especially in 70mm, which is the format I saw it in. Anyone who has seen a Kenneth Branagh-directed film (Henry V, Hamlet, Thor, etc.) knows that he has a knack for impressive, grand-scale visuals, and this film is no exception. There is not one shot where the framing felt off, and the way the Orient Express itself is photographed makes you feel it’s weight and power, similar to how the Titanic was experienced in the James Cameron film. If there is at least one advantage that Branagh’s film has over the Lumet version, it is the cinematography and production design. I would give this film a perfect 10 on a technical scale alone. Even the musical score, by frequent Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle, is well done, and manages to generate a few memorable themes—another rarity in cinema today.

All of the technical aspects aside, how is the story, as well as the mystery? Well, I suppose it depends on your approach. I do not want to give much away, because anyone who is not familiar with the story should be allowed to find out for themselves, but I will say that this version does honor the original story—at least that of the original film—but it does differ in terms of execution. The Lumet film plays more like a filmed theatrical play, in that it is confined to the train cars with occasional changes in camera placement. Branagh went for a more cinematic and dramatic approach. I suppose this is an appropriate move, but it takes some of the fun out of the whodunit spirit. Branagh also made a few more visual additions to the film, including more scenes of the moving train, the avalanche that derails the train, and a few action scenes.

Despite Branagh keeping the focus on the story mostly intact, there are moments where parts of the story don’t add up. For example, there is a scene where one of the suspects tries to escape by exiting the train and climbing down the trestle, with Poirot chasing after. The scene plays out more like a scene from The Bourne Legacy than a traditional mystery film. The investigation continues afterwards as if the chase never happened, so that scene could have been cut and we wouldn’t have missed anything. There is even a scene showing Poirot stepping in a pile of camel poop on the ground…because that is what the original was missing!

The biggest question mark, however, happens towards the end when it seems as though the true suspect is being revealed. The scene plays less like a murder mystery ending and more like a Marvel villain monologue to the hero. Strangely, yet thankfully, the film doesn’t continue on that route, and goes back to the original ending, but it feels as though the film took an unnecessary detour just for the sake of an action scene. Moments like these can rob a film of its personality and make it just generic.

The Lumet version felt more loose and fanciful in it’s approach to the mystery, and Albert Finny seemed to have fun playing Poirot. This version does have moments of humor, particularly with Branagh’s Poirot playing off of the other characters, but it also takes itself a little too seriously, and the end result rings slightly false. On the other hand, Agatha Christie herself criticized the Lumet film for Poirot’s moustache not being wild enough. If only she could see Branagh’s moustache today.

Murder on the Orient Express is a fine and faithful, if not flawed, reimagining of Agatha Christie’s beloved novel. It has a few noticeable problems, but I will say that this is one of the rare times this year when I felt I was watching something that was made for the cinema. With its lush cinematography, excellent production design, and undeniable ambition, I would say that this is worth checking out, especially if you are a fan of Branagh.

The film is now playing.

 

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