Film Review – Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is the kind of film that seems to have stepped out of the past. Not just because it’s a period piece, but also in its execution. Director Kenneth Branagh does here what he did with his update of Cinderella (2015): taking a known property and refashioning it with old school stylistics. We have charismatic actors dressed fashionably, wrapped in a story full of intrigue, and accompanied by a production design that feels lavish and detailed. There’s a chic artificiality to everything we see, from the costumes to the environments. Even the snow-filled surroundings appear man made. This is reminiscent to the productions we would’ve seen back in the 1930s or 1940s.
But don’t be fooled. Just because Branagh and his team incorporated a traditional approach adapting Agatha Christie’s well-known whodunit does not make this outdated. In fact, in an age where we are bombarded by a cacophony of sights and sounds nearly every week, something like this comes along as a breath of fresh air. How delightful it is see actors doing what they do best: Act. There is little else besides conversation going on here, but none of it comes off as boring or tedious. It’s a tribute to Christie’s novel, Michael Green’s screenplay, Branagh’s assured directorial hand, and the ability of the cast to make a group of people talking as entertaining as it is. As the central mystery unfolds, we find ourselves trying our best to keep up, to piece together the clues before all is revealed in the end.
Branagh takes center stage as the famous French detective Hercule Poirot. Sporting what might be one of the most epically over the top mustaches in cinema history, Branagh fills the role with equal parts sophistication and unwavering determinism. He has the ability to insult you toward your face but is so polite about it that you almost don’t notice. On a train heading west through early 20th century Europe, Poirot is placed in close company with a number of strangers. A few of them stick out. There’s the governess (Daisy Ridley) whom we suspect is having a secret affair with the doctor on board (Leslie Odom Jr.). There’s the Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) traveling with her assistant (Olivia Colman). The missionary Pilar (Penélope Cruz) is quiet and keeps to herself, as opposed to the widow Caroline (Michelle Pfeiffer) who calls attention whenever she enters a compartment. And then there’s Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) whose snake-like glare hints toward some mischievous (perhaps even criminal) motivations.
Eventually, one of the passengers ends up dead, and it’s up to Poirot to sift through the clues and expose the villain before they strike again. From there, Branagh leads us through a complex web of lies, where every testimony is not to be believed, and each piece of evidence points us toward something far more sinister than we may expect. I was struck by how Branagh was able to keep the pace up, given how he had a limited space to work with. He manages to keep scenes from feeling repetitive. Haris Zambarloukos’ camera glides through the train like an omniscient presence, unburdened by walls or props. The crime scene is surveyed from above, highlighting each detail right along with Poirot, and when Poirot moves between different rooms the camera follows next to him with no consideration to the space restrictions. Mick Audsley’s editing keeps us in line as points of interest start to build up. Even the use of flashback scenes – which would normally act as an easy out for narrative roadblocks – operate out of necessity. Much is made of events that happen off screen, and the use of flashback helps fill the holes for us.
Poirot belongs to a long class of famous detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe. But what draws us toward Poirot besides the mustache (seriously, it looks like a mustache on top of a mustache) is how much doubt Poirot has. Where many renowned sleuths would breeze their way through a case, Poirot – in his intimate moments – expresses uncertainty whether he can actually solve this case. He has an unbending drive to find the truth, but it’s the extra element of hesitation that brings out his humanity. Branagh is excellent in showcasing both sides to his character, I wouldn’t mind following along in Poirot’s other adventures, if we’re so lucky to get them.
If there’s anything that prevents Murder on the Orient Express from being truly great, it’s in the resolution. Once we discover who the culprit is, the result feels too easy, almost as a cop out. That’s the risk when it comes to these kinds of mysteries – the pieces fit far too easily, with an answer presented to us in a nice, neat package. Although it would be interesting to see if a rewatch would be just as rewarding knowing what will happen, everything wraps up too cleanly, with no loose ends to allow for some ambiguity.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this story on screen. Sidney Lumet gave us a very good adaptation back in 1974, which drew critical acclaim and won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar. Although I doubt this latest version will be as embraced, there’s plenty to make it stand on its own. Sure, it’s a throwback, but it’s a throwback done well.