Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

  • Time: 114 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama | Mystery
  • Director: Kenneth Branagh
  • Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe

Storyline:

A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

2 reviews

  • “My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world,” remarks the resplendently mustachioed Belgian detective as he surveys the twelve passengers-turned-murder suspects in Kenneth Branagh’s handsomely mounted, star-studded remake of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express. Indeed, Poirot’s reputation precedes him, his name recognisable though his first name is often mistaken for the far brawnier, less brainier Hercules.

    The detective wants to take a holiday from detecting, partly because his facility for solving the seemingly unsolvable has rendered him complacent and partly because he wants “to look at paintings and have too much time on my hands,” but what one man calls a little beachside puzzle for him to work out will call everything into question and shake Poirot to his core. Poirot thrives on method, precision and absolutes – “There is right, there is wrong, there is nothing in between” – but neither the world nor the people who inhabit it operate on such absolutes.

    At its heart, Murder on the Orient Express is a man’s crisis of faith disguised as a murder mystery. Make no mistake, it’s first and foremost a mystery but Poirot’s investigations are the less interesting aspect of this lavish adaptation than the erosion of his belief in himself and the world around him. The facts are as follows: a man has been murdered on the famed Orient Express, a long-distance passenger train service that was a symbol of luxury and comfort at a time when such glamour was lacking in travel. The man was stabbed twelve times sometime after midnight. Amongst the clues found in his compartment: a handkerchief embroidered with the initial “H,” a pipe cleaner, a coffee cup with traces of Barbital, and a partially destroyed note. As no one left or entered the carriage during the night and every passenger is accounted for, Poirot deduces that one of the passengers must be the murderer.

    But which one? Could it be the man’s elderly valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi), who had a mildly heated exchange with his master before his death? Or perhaps it was Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), the man’s alcoholic secretary who was skimming money off his accounts? Or xenophobic Austrian professor Gerhard (Willem Dafoe) and Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), whose Latin origins immediately make him a suspect? What of pious missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), who was the last person to see the victim alive? Or the hotheaded Count and enigmatic Countess Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton), whose diplomatic immunity prevents their luggage from being searched? Then there’s maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), to whom the handkerchief found at the scene may belong, and whose mistress Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) may have a tenuous connection to the victim. What of young governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), whose careful behaviour may be due more to merely keeping their interracial relationship under wraps. Lastly, there’s manhunting heiress Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), who claims that the murderer was also in her room on that fateful night.

    All are somehow connected to the deeply unpleasant and obviously shifty American businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp), but also to a famous American family whose child was kidnapped and later found dead (Christie drew inspiration from the real-life abduction and death of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932). Christie is renowned as the Queen of Crime and the best-selling novelist of all time; there’s no arguing her popularity nor the entertainment value to be gleaned from her works. Yet the truth of the matter is that, as enjoyable and untaxing as her mystery novels are, they’re not particularly ingenious or exciting. Perhaps they haven’t aged well with time or perhaps they’re too of their time to be radically reinvented or even made engaging for a generation whose attention span is worse than a magpie’s.

    Branagh certainly does what he can from preventing the scenes from slipping into stasis, but the film is nothing but a series of talkative fits and starts. It’s solid, one can even say workmanlike despite the effortful gloss, and there’s no denying that there is always something to catch the eye – whether it be the introduction of yet another movie star, the crisp compositions, the visual flourishes (including some impressive tracking shots), Daisy Ridley’s impossible youth, the impeccable production design, and the amazing array of period costumes (Ratchett’s floor-length chocolate brown coat is a highlight) – without the entire film itself being remarkably interesting.

    Of the phenomenal roster of stars, Branagh shines as Poirot though the indisputable standout is Pfeiffer not only because she is the epitome of the kind of dazzling movie stars they used to have back in the day (her slinking down the corridor in that plum-coloured gown is an unforgettable movie star moment), but because she’s the sole live spark amongst a cast of characters who are mostly dour and sobersided. By turns minxish and melancholy, Pfeiffer enlivens the proceedings and often elevates the film to the glamorous escapist fare it aspires to be. As a bonus, Pfeiffer can also be heard singing “Never Forget” over the film’s closing credits.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: C+

    THIS FILM IS MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

    IN BRIEF: This film gets derailed in its confused storytelling, a less than stellar cast, and some misdirection…facial and otherwise.

    SYNOPSIS: Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery is remade for today’s modern audience.

    RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 54 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: I think it was…Kenneth Branagh…on the train…with his mustache…that killed the movie. The who, what. where, and how may be answered in this unnecessary remake of Murder on the Orient Express, but the “why” still nags at this moviegoer. Why dig up this buried gem when one could easily view the far superior 1974 murder mystery classic by Sidney Lumet and his all-star cast of screen legends (Finney, Bergman, Bacall, Connery, Redgrave, and such)? Can this new treatment with state-of-the-art CGI, a more expensive budget, and a cast of today’s recognizable actors improve upon this tale of murder and deceit?

    The answer is a resounding “no” in comparison. The specter of Mr. Lumet’s masterful film haunts this earnest but standard remake. It’s foolhardy filmmaking that does little to improve its literary source. Whereas the 1974 version streamlined a convoluted plot, focused on some fine directorial touches, brought an air of elegance in its elegant Art Deco decor, delivered some interesting well-written characters, and added a first class tier of legendary actors to its roster, this new, but far from improved, update muddles its complicated story, provides stagy direction, has an dark sedated period look, introduces some characters in need of more clarity and motive, and brings a second class group of celebrities to this remake (combined with a few star-worthy replacements). Overall, this 2017 tale has lost all of its sense of glamour, wit, and fun.

    It seems that rebooting and re-imagining has taken the place of creativity these days. So with that said, my remainder of my review on this latest attempt to fill the pockets of the producers and filmmakers will try to concentrate on only this movie…a hard task, indeed.

    For those newbies unaware of the plot: Aboard a high-class speeding train, is super sleuth, Hercule Poirot. It is there that our fussy Belgian hero meets a shady criminal who fears that he will be killed before disembarking and asks our fastidious detective to prevent his demise. Alas, the deadly deed does take place (no real spoiler here) and the list of passengers become his targeted suspects as he unravels the mystery. Clues are scattered through the narrative as, one by one, each traveller converses with Monsieur Poirot. Rest assure, the culprit (or culprits) will be found by the film’s end.

    The casting is paramount to make this mousetrap work. Mr. Branagh serves as director and lead actor and his dual contributions are a tad uneven. As a director, he layers the narrative with some skill but never involves his audience, choosing to look more at the panoramic scenery than concentrate on the characters. The screenplay by Michael Green doesn’t help matters either. The film begins with a totally unrelated crime that establishes Poirot’s quirky behavioral traits  but adds little to the plot, except confusion.

    However, Branagh the Actor captures the detective’s dialect and his mannerisms well, but he is essentially miscast by his own physicality…and his odd choice of including that ridiculous fur-piece posing as a mustache to the Poirot character. Yes, it is a trademark of the sleuth, but, seen here, it is an absurd facial prop that interferes with the character and the story. He takes the term “stiff upper lip” far too literally. Always upstaged by the damn mustache, the actor fights for equal screen time and loses the battle. Plus the fact that the actor himself is rather tall and handsome upends Agatha Christie’s unlikable but beloved toady character.

    Some “stars” match their predecessors with style (Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer), others acquit themselves rather nicely (Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr. ), a few are underused and underwritten (Willem Dafoe, Olivia Coleman, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp) but some haven’t a clue on how to create a memorable character (Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz). In their defense, the writing may be suspect too.

    Jim Clay’s fine production design shows off the opulence without the elegance. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is first-rate and the period costumes are true to the period but hardly show-stopping. However, the CGI avalanche scene is so fake and jarringly bad that is literally stops the film cold.

    No, this cinematic game of Clue remains a mystery. With all its fancy trappings, Murder on the Orient Express may look the part. But under closer examination, some less than stellar casting bits, a few excessively theatrical moments, and a meandering script make this whodunit more of a “why-do-it”.

    NOTE: Those unfamiliar with Dame Agatha’s book or the previous aforementioned Lumet film may enjoy this movie more than those already acquainted with the story and its twisty ending. I was mildly disappointed with the end result.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Visit my blog at: http://www.dearmoviegoer.com 

    ANY COMMENTS: Please contact me at: jadepietro@rcn.com

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