20th CENTURY FOX (2017)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Sergei Polunin
What a cast. Seriously.
Agatha Christie’s classic 1934 novel is given the modern, shiny update that no-one was crying out for. However, once the cast of Murder on the Orient Express was announced and trailers started to drop, interest quickly began to mount for the movie. Under the watchful, theatrical eye of director Kenneth Branagh, the movie was destined to look lavish, however, does the ‘whodunit?’ murder mystery genre translate in the modern setting?
Kind of. Maybe. Not really.
Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is desperate for some time off, time to relax. Unfortunately, after solving a case in Istanbul he is quickly signed up to investigate another case, this time in London. His transportation? A grand train – the Orient Express. Thankfully, his buddy Bouc (Bateman) – the train’s director – manages to squeeze him aboard the (unusually) full train and off he goes for the three-day jaunt. Whilst travelling, he is accosted by American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Depp), who fears for his life after receiving several threatening notes and offers the job of bodyguard to the detective for a substantial fee – though Poirot refuses. That evening, an avalanche derails the train, leaving the passengers stranded in the snow. However, something more sinister has happened onboard necessitating that Poirot is called into action earlier than he would have expected (or wanted) – the murder of one of the passengers.
Everyone’s a suspect – was it the radiant governess Mary Debenham (Ridley), secretive Dr. Arbuthnot (Odom Jr.), racist ‘Austrian professor’ Gerhard Hardman (Dafoe)? Maybe it’s the aloof Princess Dragomiroff (Dench) or her overworked servant Hildegarde Schmidt (Colman)? Ratchett’s alcoholic assistant Hector MacQueen (Gad) or the long-suffering valet Edward Masterman (Jacobi) possibly? Ratchett himself? Could it be the profoundly religious missionary Pilar Estravados (Cruz), the frisky socialite Caroline Hubbard (Pfeiffer) or maybe Countess Helena Andrenyi (Boynton) or her shady husband, Count Ruldoph Andrenyi (Polunin)? Whodunit?
There are a few amendments to characters and their names, but by and large Murder on the Orient Express remains faithful to the source material. The characters are all individually good, however, not all of them are fleshed out that well – there are good turns and development from Ridley and Gad, whereas the old guard delivers as expected, even if some suffer from a lack of screen time. Branagh is marvellous as the pernickety, intelligent and charming Poirot and his facial foliage is a joy to watch.
It’s a well-shot movie (it’s a Branagh movie…) throughout with some classic camerawork techniques. The Hitchcock-esque overhead shots, tightly framed scenes in narrow corridors and lots of long, singular sequences all were fabulous. The overall visuals were great, though some of the CGI/green screen was a bit iffy. The exterior shots were large, expansive and colourful delivering some beautiful sequences with the train rolling along on its way. Branagh’s decision to shoot on 65mm film delivered an ‘epic’ feel at times, however, the combination of analogue and digital wasn’t always a good fit. The majority of the movie was shot on a soundstage and on set and it shows at times, though there are some sumptuous exterior shots, including the snowy New Zealand mountains, green Swiss mountains and the lavish views from the Barrakka Gardens in Valletta, Malta (doubling as Istanbul).
There’s a very theatrical nature to Murder on the Orient Express, mostly stemming from Poirot himself. The overall look and feel is very vintage and not something often seen nowadays and the denouement is extremely melodramatic – too much at certain moments. There are certain plot points that don’t work or add up to much, which is frustrating, and the feeling of uncovering the plot with the detective is sadly missing. Like a good murder mystery, the movie takes its time to tell its story, however, the story itself isn’t told in a particularly gripping manner. There isn’t a lot to get the pulses racing here – including an ill-judged chase scene midway through. On the flipside, the revised soundtrack by Patrick Doyle is highly effective and a great listen.
Murder on the Orient Express is interesting without being compelling. There are some good performances, Branagh especially, and some beautiful visuals on display, however the story itself never really becomes as engaging or gripping as it really should do. The all-star cast can only do so much to keep the movie afloat, and whilst it certainly is a decent movie, it sadly isn’t the great movie it could have been.
Second class carriage, not first class.
November 14th 2017