“Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) Movie Review


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     One would assume putting together a recognizable star laden ensemble cast for a feature film will ensure both financial and critical success, but this isn't always the case.  On one extreme, you have a film like Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 SAG Ensemble winner “Inglourious Basterds”, which boasted a cast including Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, among others who were each supplied with the kind of moments necessary to make each of their roles memorable, even when some of them appeared in only one scene.  The screenplay is clearly the key to all of this, since even a director with the necessary chops to helm such a project would be hamstrung without the all important words on the page to propel ordinary material to the heights an audience will expect when they see A-List names in the opening credits.  Now this isn't to say director Kenneth Branagh’s retelling of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” fails in this department entirely, but for the most part, many of the film’s stars are sadly left without much to do.

     From the beginning, screenwriter Michael Green’s adaptation faced a tough road ahead, especially considering the film would be instantly compared to Sidney Lumet’s 1974 take on the same material, which also featured a standout cast that included Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, and Sean Connery.  The new film by Branagh seems to replace the strong character acting of the original with today’s modern filmmaking tools, which provide shots of the train chugging along through gorgeous mountain vistas intended to give the film a more epic look.  And certainly some of these shots are warranted, but when your cast begins with Branagh himself as the self proclaimed greatest detective Hercule Poirot, and features the likes of Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe, there are only so many windows of opportunity to allow these talented actors to shine.

     The film opens in mid 1930s Jerusalem, where we are introduced to Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) as he sifts through the particulars of a case in which a rare antiquity has been stolen.  Not to be disrespectful of the character’s immense talent in detective work, but his style can’t help but remind of Jim Carrey’s take on his own detective character in the “Ace Ventura” films.  Poirot notices things on people’s clothing that seem to tell him where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing for the past few days.  Residue of some kind on their clothing, dirt on their shoes, or maybe a smudge of something on their face is what he will instantly notice and also point out, complete with his theories as to what these observations mean.  He sees every detail and organizes them into a cohesive narrative in his mind and does this with complete impartiality.  His skills are so refined that he is in constant need around the world, and an emergency case sees him rushing to London via the Orient Express, a lavishly appointed train populated by an interesting who’s who of travelers.

     Unlike Joon-ho-Bong’s 2013 film “Snowpiercer", in which the train is separated by societal class, Branagh’s “Orient Express” is designed to carry and pamper some the richest people in the world.  At first, it appears this will be a very routine three day ride to their next destination, as the passengers are treated to fine dining, drinks, and some mostly unwanted social time.  It seems no one on this train is there to do anything other than eat and sleep their time away in their cabins, but perhaps there is a reason for that.  One night, in the same car housing Poirot, a murder occurs, sending everyone into a panic.  The situation is also made worse when an avalanche causes the train to derail, stranding the group in place and miles away from the next stop.  By default, Poirot springs into action, handle bar mustache and all, interrogating each passenger and attempting to piece together what exactly happened.

     Poirot dominates nearly every minute of screen time, only allowing the other characters to participate when they are interacting with him.  This makes the narrative feel rudimentary and uninventive since murder investigations will almost always take unforeseen turns and lead down dark unknown corridors.  Poirot, in what we are told is his trademark controlling style, prefers to handle the proceedings by the numbers and that doesn't lend to much intrigue in what will happen next.  Characters like Dench’s Russian Princess or Dafoe’s Professor are barely seen, and even Pfeiffer’s Caroline Hubbard and Gad’s Hector MacQueen seem to disappear for long stretches, even though everyone is literally boxed in and unable to go very far.  Perhaps more interaction amongst the characters without Poirot should have been in order, but some may have felt that would’ve given away the story’s well guarded secrets.

     As an update utilizing today’s modern filmmaking techniques, “Murder on the Orient Express” certainly accomplishes its mission from a production design standpoint.  The film is beautiful from its first frame to the last. Branagh manages to inject an assortment of creative camera movement and framing techniques that prove his skill as a director, while also functioning as the center of attention for the entire running time, but his performance is so well defined that it leaves the rest of the characters in the unfocused background much too often, resulting in consistent thoughts like “Hey look, there’s Rey from Star Wars!” or “Isn’t that LeFou from Beauty and the Beast?”.  No one other than Branagh is given the scenes to really define their roles and display the talents that landed them here in the first place.  Which to me comes right back to the script and the need to develop the characters we are meant to care about.  A few more well written scenes could have made all the difference.  GRADE: C+