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Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley in a very talky take on an Agatha Christie detective classic.

Twentieth Century FoxTwentieth Century FoxBy the time this latest film version of Agatha Christie's 80-year-old novel shuffled to its conclusion, the person I most wanted to see murdered on the Orient Express was the central character. Yes, I'm afraid that would be Hercule Poirot, Christie's finicky Belgian sleuth ("probably the greatest detective in the world," as he'll be the first to tell you). Here, played by Kenneth Branagh, instead of past masters like Albert Finney and David Suchet, Poirot is more annoying than usual in his nudgingly colorful eccentricities. (He requires that his soft-boiled eggs be exactly the same height in their egg cups. He is forever telling people to straighten their ties. He sports a mustache the size of a seagull.) And since Branagh is also the movie's director, I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised that his Poirot is a total spotlight-hog, mumbling helpful expository information to himself (and us) at every turn, and sometimes communing with a faded photo of a young woman he addresses as "my Katherine." (I assumed Katherine was dead, but it's possible she just got bored with this windy dude.)

The unceasing focus on Poirot sucks the air out of Christie's story, and leaves very little attention to be paid to the rest of the main cast. This is a serious flaw, because the plot and the clues to the titular mystery are tricky, and the dozen or so other characters are hazily sketched. We soon grasp who Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer are supposed to be: she's a randy widow, he's a crooked art dealer (or is he?). But I found it a little difficult at first to sort out the characters played by Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench; and while Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr.'s function slowly becomes somewhat clear (they're the requisite lovebirds, among other things), and a mysterious Austrian played by Willem Dafoe doesn't stay mysterious for too long, Penélope Cruz's sorrowful Spanish missionary remains boring right up to the end—where in the long tradition of locked-room mysteries, everything is made clear by the world's greatest detective.

You'd think the story would be fairly well-known by this point. Having just closed another case (in a long, irrelevant opening section set in Jerusalem), Poirot is now boarding the luxurious Orient Express in Istanbul, heading back to his home base in London. But then he's approached by a fellow passenger, the shifty Ratchett (Depp), who's been getting threatening letters and wants to hire Poirot as a bodyguard, to "watch my back." (I'm sure people said things like that in 1934, the year in which this story takes place.) The following morning, Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his first-class compartment, which is locked on the inside. By this point, the train has come to a stop, its way forward blocked by an impassible mountain of snow that has been dumped on the tracks by a mini-avalanche. So no one is going anywhere. Poirot's investigation—which involves a lot of talk-talk-talk—begins.

In the same way that Quentin Tarantino gained very little by shooting The Hateful Eight in a widescreen format, Branagh also miscalculated, I think, in deciding to film this movie in 65mm. The intense clarity afforded by widescreen photography highlights every powdered pore, every badly affixed hairpiece, and every fake-looking digital effect. The panoramic possibilities of 65mm are largely wasted on scenes set within the narrow corridors of the train; and outside, where Branagh must have been hoping it would add majestic sweep to the snowy mountain exteriors, the glut of airless CGI used to render the clouds and rocks and rickety bridges turns every shot into a model-train layout.

This is a shame, because the actors generally provide just the sort of all-star appeal this kind of story requires. Jacobi, Dench and Cruz are wasted, but Ridley and Odom exude unmistakable star power, Pfeiffer attacks her role with old-pro exuberance, and Depp…doesn't embarrass himself. The movie is clumsily structured and oddly executed (a scene in which Branagh and Ridley sit outside the train at a table having coffee—in what we've been told is the freezing cold—is strikingly dopey), and maybe some of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049). But since the star and director is also one of the film's producers, probably not a lot.

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

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  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I first saw Brannagh in various Shakespeare movies, then the Wannasee Conference, and he was fantastic. But those are all talky talk scripts, and maybe that's his downfall. Maybe he needs to learn to just shut up once in a while.

  • creech||

    Branagh is fantastic but in the promo I saw for this (was it on Sunday Morning?) I couldn't understand a word he uttered. Why do American moviegoers need the fake accents, etc.? Even shows like Downton Abbey had actors and actresses who couldn't speak clearly even in their native tongue (yes, I know America and Britain are two countries separated by the same language, but come on.)

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    He wasn't very talky in Wallander, but that show makes you want to kill yourself for other reasons.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Wouldn't be the first time an attempt to work his magic backfired on him.

  • The Last American Hero||

    No, but he probably forgot about that little incident.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Yeah, he kind of lost himself for a spell there.

  • Amir Najam Sethit||

    Thanks for posting this blog and giving information of this movie.

  • Agammamon||

    C'mon spambot - you forgot the link in your name. Competition is fierce in the spambot ecosystem - your lively hood and *life* depend on you getting it right.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Unless Branagh has tampered with the 'trick' of the story, I can't see this working as a mystery, since the ending is notorious. As I recall, Christie makes all the suspect characters almost as tiresome as the detective, in service of that plot twist, so there's no movie there either. The Orient Express went through some spectacualr scenery, but Loder makes it clear that little use is makde of the fact. Sounds like this may be a strong entry for "most unnecessary remake".

  • Think It Through||

    "Watch my back" anachronism . . . what about an interracial black-white couple on the Orient Express?

  • The Last American Hero||

    They had those in the old days. There was even a play about this dude called Othello...

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    Those existed before 1960, y'know.

  • Tony||

    What's cool about Agatha Christie is that even though it's been 15 or 20 years since I read her books, if you name a title I can tell you who the murderer was, as each has its own memorable twist. Since I know the outcome of this one, I was hoping the new movie brought something to the table to make it worth watching regardless.

  • Agammamon||

    ALL I KNOW IS THAT THERE AREN'T ENOUGH ASIANS ON THIS SO-CALLED 'ORIENT' EXPRESS!!

    WHITEWASHINGWHITEWASHINGWHITEWASHINGWHITEWASHING

    WHITEWASHINGWHITEWASHINGWHITEWASHINGWHITEWASHING

  • Stephdumas||

    ...of past masters like Albert Finney and David Suchet,...

    No mention of Peter Ustinov? ;-)

  • Cloudbuster||

    Apparently I would be better served just giving the book a long-delayed reread. The last time I read it was in the '70s.

  • Bill4||

    We are currently at peak (so far) of the phrase "watch my back", virtually unknown in 1934 (per Google's Ngram). Small but telling. All star, no script.

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