Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express

Rating

Director

Kenneth Branagh

Screenplay

Michael Green (Novel: Agatha Christie)

Length

1h 54m

Starring

Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for violence and thematic elements

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Soundtrack

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Source Material

Review

Adapting a novel to the big screen carries with it a number of critical challenges. Bringing Murder on the Orient Express to the modern Cineplex presents even more problems, not the least of which is a brilliant previous adaptation.

On the fortieth anniversary of the literary release of Murder on the Orient Express, director Sidney Lumet fashioned cinema’s first adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie whodunit. His film was a critical success, earned numerous Oscar nominations, and gave Ingrid Bergman her third Oscar-winning role. A veritable who’s who of cinematic royalty graced the screen in the 1974 film. How exactly does one make another adaptation of the same source without being compared to the original? It doesn’t.

That doesn’t stop director Kenneth Branagh from trying. Building his Hollywood career on the backs of adaptations of William Shakespeare, Branagh brought a sense of grandeur and elegance to his early films, most notably Hamlet. That aesthetic has served him well in his directorial journey in films like Cinderella, but for Murder on the Orient Express, he seems to have left behind the dazzle of his prior efforts and created a subdued production wherein everything is filled with period detail, while little of it is bold and eye-catching.

That’s where the Lumet original stands out best. Not only did it boast an exceptional cast of Oscar royalty, it was filled to the brim with gorgeous design elements that burst off the screen in decadent opulence. This version wants to mute itself in an effort to build up the tension and dramatics of the adventure, without understanding quite why the previous film succeeded so well.

Part of that is the cast. The 1974 film featured Hollywood legends like Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, and Wendy Hiller along with such notables as Martin Balsam, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Jacqueline Bisset, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, and Michael York. That kind of cast would have been difficult to duplicate at that time, but today it’s nigh impossible.

Branagh’s version has its share of prominent actors such as Michelle Pfeifer, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe; however, the rest of the cast is notable, but not impressively so. Derek Jacobi and Olivia Colman at great actors, but Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, and Lucy Boynton have had little time to build the kind of reputations that that original cast brought directly to their film.

Whereas the original cast felt deeply invested in their characters, that involvement is almost superficial among this cast. Pfeiffer ratchets up the theatrics and Depp chomps on his scenery like he’s devouring a delicate cake. Dench, Cruz, and Dafoe are all adequate in their roles, but hardly outstanding. Only Jacobi and Colman really seem to get the density of the work and give it their full commitment. Odom Jr. does fine, but Ridley plasters on a disingenuous smile while Gad hams up his numerous scenes. Bateman is over-exuberant and the rest of the cast is largely forgettable.

As Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot, Branagh infuses him with unnecessary backstory elements and makes him feel more like a caricature than a credible human being. Giving him added backstory that doesn’t exist in Christie’s universe or choosing to highlight a bare minimum of the character’s noteworthy ticks only serves to alienate any fan of the famed detective. Not only can he not hold a candle to the inimitable Finney, but he’s a pale imitation of the legendary David Suchet version and doesn’t even approach the level of lived-in weariness of Peter Ustinov, who was probably the most miscast of all cinematic Poirots. Indeed, the pomposity of his ugly and distracting moustache is the least of his issues.

While having lovely period detail is a wonderful thing and it would be almost unfair to compare the 1974 version with this take, everything does feel organic and appropriate to the period. That the exterior elements don’t quite fit is a minor quibble. The Patrick Doyle score doesn’t have the lush grandness of the Richard Rodney-Bennett original, but it’s fitting in places even if not particularly noteworthy. I will, however, give credit to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. When the passengers are sitting or being interviewed in the dining car, large panels of beveled glass are used to fracture the actors and create a multiplicative image of each, creating the sense that these characters are broken in some way, either in their refusal to be upfront with who and what they are, or because of the emotional trauma of the characters’ past. The effect is a bit overused, but is no less fascinating.

On its own, Murder on the Orient Express is a largely engaging drama that tries hard to modernize the stuffy British atmosphere of the original work. Murder mysteries today are seldom as confined and regimented as they were during Christie’s heyday, but there’s a reason those stories gained the popularity that they did. They were compelling excursions into diversionary storytelling. Each mystery was built on a series of narrative twists and turns that were sometimes impossible to unravel, but the fun was entirely in getting there. This film, and the screenplay by Michael Green, never quite brings that type of story to life. They try hard to add elements that give the audience more active engagement or more investment in the characters themselves, but never once consider why these characters, especially the brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, resonate so potently 80 years after they were first created.

It may be unfair to compare this version to the Lumet one, but when you have near cinematic perfection to begin with, trying to tackle it from a different angle only serves to accentuate the new film’s many contrivances and to highlight just why the original was so grand to begin with. Murder on the Orient Express is a film that never should have been attempted. It’s familiarity among Christie fans may seem like a boon to draw potential audiences, but it’s a dangerous trap for those who are most familiar are often the most critical and with this film, they have every right to be frustrated.

Spoiler Discussion

I use this section to discuss elements that might give away key plot elements of the film, but in this case, I’m going to use it to gripe about a particular element to the film that proves to be the ultimate in contrivance.

Not every movie needs a sequel. In 1978, another Agatha Christie novel, also starring Hercule Poirot, was adapted for the big screen. Casting another actor in the Poirot (this time Ustinov), Death on the Nile was a slightly lesser affair than Orient Express. Still, it was a lush drama filled with another slate of legendary Hollywood actors such as David Niven, Angela Lansbury, and Bette Davis among myriad others.

As familiar as that film is, it should come as no surprise that they are contemplating (and in fact have already greenlighted) an adaptation of that novel as well. That’s egregious enough (especially since Branagh will be back as Poirot and as director, two things I don’t know if I can abide), but Branagh and company had the gall to reference the film at the end of Orient Express.

As Poirot is about to be spirited away to London, his driver references a murder in Egypt that will require the detectives attention, specifically one occurring on the Nile. This is not a Marvel or DC movie. It’s not a Hollywood blockbuster. There is absolutely no reason other than cheesy vainglory to put that reference at the end of the film. It’s a crass and calculated ploy that would have ruined what was already a tepid feature.

Oscar Prospects

Probables: Production Design, Costume Design
Potentials: Supporting Actress (Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench), Original Score, Makeup and Hairstyling

Review Written

November 28, 2017

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