MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS Review

You know those times when you think something is unnecessary, let's say for the sake of this format it's a movie, and yet despite those initial hesitations and questions of purpose you come to realize that it's not a complete waste of time, but rather that you actually like certain aspects of this fresh perspective it once seemed was uncalled for. I have never before read the 1934 Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, nor had I seen what is probably the most famous adaptation of this work in Sidney Lumet's 1974 film that starred Albert Finney as one of Christie's most famous and long-lived characters, Detective Hercule Poirot. That was, until earlier this week when I decided to catch-up with what was no doubt much of the reason 20th Century Fox decided it was indeed necessary to bring Christie's work back to the big screen with no lack of prestige in either its talent or production. In doing so, it became clear how much that '74 film serves as a perfect blueprint for the murder mystery venture and while I certainly doubt it was the first film of its kind it certainly is a fine example of how to make this type of movie in an effective, fun, and engaging manner. So, what does Sir Kenneth Branagh do when he gets his hands on such rich material and the opportunity to play as famous a character as Poirot? Well, not much really. Branagh keeps to the guidelines of the genre for the most part while the changes in characters and character arcs in this latest adaptation feel more like attempts to differentiate this version from Lumet's more than they do organic changes that came out of adapting Christie's story for a more modern audience. Sure, there are changes made to certain character's ethnicities and the color of certain character's skin, but beyond these factors serving to be acknowledged as they might have been in the context of 1934 there is no reason to have changed anything about the character other than for the sake of variety and equality, which is never a bad thing, of course, but the hope was that whatever changes Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) made for this latest adaptation they might have been done to either improve upon the story or offer some facet previously unexplored. And yet, this version of Murder on the Orient Express is a safe if not efficient take in the mystery genre that relies on star power for character development and handsomely mounted production values to fill in for substance leaving the experience of Branagh's latest to be perfectly serviceable if not exactly fulfilling.

MacQueen (Josh Gad) serves as Ratchett's (Johnny Depp) secretary in what are likely some shady art dealings.
If you're familiar with Christie's novel or any iteration of any given adaptation of Christie's work, but specifically dealing with the Orient Express (there was a British series titled Agatha Christie's Poirot that ran from 1989 until June 2013 and featured David Suchet as the master detective), then you're familiar with the narrative that is spun here. The set-up is simple, but intriguing (as always) in that it brings together a group of seeming strangers into the confined quarters of a passenger train for a handful of days where a murder is then committed leaving the remaining twelve passengers in the first class car to become prime suspects. Of course, what this murderer did not account for was the fact famed Belgian detective Poirot (Branagh) would be joining the trip after we are first introduced to him solving the case of a stolen artifact in Jerusalem. Branagh executes and exemplifies the famous detective's stance on enough things so as to hint at what Poirot's arc will likely be in the film while simultaneously displaying the skills that have earned him his current reputation. Upon the resolution of this opening case Poirot is looking forward to taking a much needed holiday from work hence the reason he enlists the assistance of old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) a scoundrel who comes from a privileged bloodline and now serves as the director of the Orient Express if for no other reason than his benefactor thought it the best way to keep him out of trouble (he's making arrangements with a prostitute upon his introduction). Bouc offers Poirot passage to France via a three day trip on his luxurious train to which Poirot greatly accepts putting him in the company of those he will soon be investigating. Unbeknownst to any of them, Poirot actually meets two of his fellow passengers in Governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) on his boat trip from Jerusalem to Istanbul where the Orient Express will be departing from. From here, Branagh intentionally introduces us in rather coy manners to each of the other players that will be taking part in this commute. In a rather strange introduction that sees the classiest bar brawl of all time happen without little to no context, we meet the Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his new bride Countess Elena Andrenyi (Sing Street's Lucy Boynton) before they seemingly disappear until the plot calls for their presence once more. Branagh smooths out these initial, rather muddled introductions by then taking us onto the train in a single tracking shot that sees a homely maid (Penélope Cruz) make her way to her cabin as quickly and as quietly as she can whereas Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) seems intent on letting everyone he meets know he is riding first class due to his booming automotive business. Then there is sleazy American Ratchett (Johnny Depp) with his secretary McQueen (Josh Gad) and personal butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi) followed by divorcée Ms. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) who can't seem to stop talking...ever. Princess Dragomiroff (Dame Judi Dench) is followed every step of the way by her loyal and humble servant, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), while a professor Gerhard (Willem Dafoe) slips slyly onto the train, largely unnoticed.

So, as one might have gathered, Branagh has stacked this thing with big names and even bigger personalities with this both demonstrating one of the more entertaining aspects of the film while also providing one of the more glaring issues with Green's updated screenplay and Branagh's execution in balancing his large cast. That is all to say that much of the enjoyment of watching Murder on the Orient Express comes from seeing these well-known faces not necessarily "ham it up", but knowingly kind of position themselves within these roles and play fully into the single characteristic that is defines them. This can be a ton of fun, especially when you take into consideration the amount of focus Branagh gives his own character in which he genuinely seems keen on setting up someone the audience might enjoy going through several of these kinds of cases with sprinkled with the likes of Pfeiffer doing her best impression of traits many no doubt imagine are inspired by her own persona and just playing fully into this while Depp seems more self-aware than ever with his casting here feeling more like a stunt than anything else. The inciting incident and eventual resolution have long since faded from popular culture and thus makes how Fox and Branagh have gone about this rather intriguing likely adding a layer of intrigue for those who walk in cold. Other standouts in the cast are Gad for the rather meaty role MacQueen is given in this adaptation whereas it is nice to see Ridley in a role outside of Star Wars that shows the young woman will be fine when Rey's saga comes to a close. Other than these though, it's as if Branagh relies on the star power (or lack thereof) to help the audience gauge how much we are aware of/care about each of these potential murderers. Dr. Arbuthnot would seemingly stand to benefit the most from having had someone more famous in the role, but Odom Jr. does what he can with some of the bigger actions his character must make despite us hardly hearing a peep from him otherwise. We understand how Dench is going to play the Princess because we recognize her demeanor right away with Colman being so criminally underused it may be the most disappointing facet of the whole film that there isn't more Hildegarde. Furthermore, Dafoe is an afterthought, but it's Dafoe so we understand he's critical to a certain extent. This is to say we get little in the way of characterization around Cruz's Pilar, the aforementioned couple played by Polunin and Boynton, with Richard Clifford's previously key Maître d' barely registering. This is the main difference between Lumet and Branagh's take on the material as Lumet's film at least gave each of the characters a moment to shine, a chance to get intimate with the audience thus making the eventual revelations all the more impactful and sensical whereas Branagh's third act feels more like patch work than a cohesive whole.

Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) makes the acquaintance of Governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) in Murder on the Orient Express
This brings us to what I was mostly looking for when walking into Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express, that of which is how the director and star might utilize the advances in filmmaking that have come along since the mid-seventies. And aside from some blatant CGI shots of vast exteriors and the train itself moving at accelerated speeds this is an otherwise grand and handsome production to be envied by the most accomplished of set, production, and costume designers. Shot on full, glorious 70MM film there is certainly an expansiveness to the vision Branagh had despite much of his film taking place within contained quarters and in one location. Of course, this is likely the reason Branagh wanted to shoot the film on this dying format as the closed quarters and expansive cast made for shots with not much room, but plenty of people. The wide scope and high resolution of these kinds of cameras give the narrow corridors and dining carriages a depth of field that would undoubtedly be lost in more restricted formats. Branagh also does some interesting and rather impressive things as far as the movement of his camera are concerned including the aforementioned single-take that takes us through the introductions of all the key players. This is done in interesting enough fashion while capturing the immediate tone each character possesses in their brief moment on camera, but while these single takes are impressive and the consistent choice to keep overhead shots of multiple characters in corridors for long periods of time, even through dialogue exchanges are notable, one thing remains the same: Poirot is seemingly always the focus of these set-ups. While it was evident Branagh would see himself as the main character it wasn't a foregone conclusion that he would be the center of attention. Rather, it always felt as if Poirot would be more a conductor in his own regard; an organizer of the chaos, if you will. Instead, Branagh gives Poirot an arc that deals in having to learn that not all things are black and white, that not all cases come down to the guilty automatically being the villain (which is stated outright in the opening sequence), but rather that there are shades to each of us and often times, more than meets the eye when it comes to crimes dealing in the taking of another's life. One would imagine Poirot has been on the job long enough to have made this realization by now, but alas that is the journey we are given so thank God the procedure of the investigation and mystery of it all still hold up rather well. Playing Poirot as both direct, but often times unintentionally funny if not mostly dismissive Branagh also struggles in moments to find balance in the fact his story revolves around death and tragedy while making light of characters, some of their traits, and some of their circumstances. It's a tone that doesn't always meld, but has just enough of both to deliver an experience akin to that of a meal made of meat and potatoes-it's familiar and comforting, but there's nothing surprising about it-you know what you're getting.