MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green (screenplay, based upon the novel by Agatha Christie)
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Gerard Horan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Hayat Kamille
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Kenneth Branagh’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is the latest and biggest budgeted version of the Agatha Christie story to date. While this extravagance adds a lot of CG flair and star power to this iteration, Branagh’s tendency to make his movies all about him and a need to lecture the audience makes this one feel a bit over indulgent, despite it’s slick presentation.
If you’ve been a film fan, you’ve most likely seen one version or another of this classic mystery, but here’s a synopsis anyway. Eccentric and famous detective Hercule Piorot (played by director Kenneth Branagh) finds himself on board a train called the Orient Express after having a chance meeting with an old acquaintance named Bouc (Tom Bateman) who happens to own the train. As the passengers shuffle on board, all of them seem to be acting suspiciously in one way or another. Piorot is approached by a shifty American businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who asks for Piorot to be his bodyguard for the length of the trip, ensuring his safety. Piorot disliking Ratchett’s demeanor immediately, refuses and retires for the night. When the sun comes up, Ratchett’s body if found in his bunk, stabbed to death multiple times. With no one arriving or leaving the train car, Piorot deduces that the killer is still on board the train and a dozen suspects are lined up and interviewed by the clever detective to find the killer.
What works with this film is that it utilizes some fantastic CG work showing the train barreling through an icy mountainside. These scenes suggest a much bigger story than a simple mystery and Branagh seems to want this film to be more of a statement about humanity than a simple mystery as well. I also liked some of the cinematography decisions occurring in this film such as the way the camera moves above and through the cabins and behind tempered and multidimensional class. And there’s a scene where Piorot lines his suspects up at a table resembling “The Last Supper” that is pretty amazing.
As thrilling as it is seeing the train dart across rickety bridges with avalanches crashing down mountainsides, it is equally thrilling to see the cast Branagh has assembled. Everyone is pretty stunning here playing very familiar roles. Standouts are Willem Dafoe as a German scientist whose eccentricity rivals Piorot’s. I also loved Dame Judy Dench’s turn as a rich socialite (here she is more spicy than I’ve seen her before) and Bateman’s turn as the charming playboy train owner is fun to see. Josh Gad is surprisingly effective and while he looks like Jack Black’s long lost brother with that tiny moustache and suit, he carries a lot of acting chops with him here. Penelope Cruz is decent, though isn’t given much of a character to work with, and Michelle Pfeifer works as the slightly aged cougar looking for her next husband and baring claws as she did in BATMAN RETURNS not-so long ago. And Johnny Depp is pretty fantastic as the conniving Ratchett, holding back his usual over-the-top-itude and playing it pretty dark and straight here.
Where this version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS falters lays with Branagh’s wobbly interpretation of the Piorot character. While his moustache is in fact impressive (as Christie wrote it), it serves to be the cherry on top of the over the top treatment Branagh plays as Piorot. Much too much of this film makes Piorot more of a Bugs Bunny snarky smartass than the master deductor he is in other interpretations. Occasionally buffoonish and boasting, it’s difficult to really like the overly confident character who pines for his lost love when he has time to himself. This felt more Sherlock Holmes than Piorot at times with the person next to him at the time playing Watson and receiving every kind of condescension short of an “Elementary…” This one doesn’t have Branagh darting around a lab shirtless screaming “It’s alive!” as he did in the head-slappingly over-indulgent MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN, but it makes no mistake in letting the viewer know who the star of the show is at all times.
On top of it all, I feel that the film gets mighty preachy and downright over-explainy by the end of the film. Without giving away who killed Ratchett, I feel that the speechifying that goes on towards the end of the film just feels off, as if Branagh was acting towards the cheap seats of the theater. I feel a little more subtlety would have spoke much louder than the soapboxing going on with tears in Piorot’s eyes before the train enters the station and everyone returns to the civilized world. I understand this is a big budget film and i’s and t’s need to be dotted and crossed so Johnny-Movie-Goer can get it, but I think Branagh could have used a softer touch with the way this one wrapped up.
I did like the way most of the characters were fleshed out as well as the slow deduction methods Piorot uses as he interviews the entire cast of suspects one after another. This could easily become repetitious, but it never does due to the fun cast and some fun camera trickery. While I have issue with the way this story plays out, it seems to stick to the structure of the original tale. There’s a back story that is told to the audience–referenced in flashbacks that I think would have been more effective had we seen the murder at the beginning and then moved to the current mystery. To me, a good mystery should have all the elements of the murder placed in front of the viewer for them to solve. The fun is trying to solve the murder before the detective. Here we aren’t made privy to the backstory, only told about it as it is convenient to the story. This means there is no way to guess who dunnit, leaving all the answers for you know who to solve and show us how clever he is. While this is a fault of the story itself and not the movie exactly, it does lend some insight as to why Branagh might have chosen this tale.
Light and breezy and easy to digest, there’s nothing particular bad about Branagh’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It’s just that the film as a whole lacks subtlety and chooses to be the smartest dude in the room more times than it was to my liking.