Murder on the Orient Express

murder_on_the_orient_express_ver3STARS2I just witnessed the murder…of a classic. It shouldn’t have been difficult. Take Murder on the Orient Express, an entertaining whodunit by Agatha Christie. Cast a lot of A-list stars in the roles. Then ensure you have extravagant production values, nice costumes, picturesque cinematography and a lush score. Audiences love this sort of thing. They always have. Back in 1974, Sidney Lumet directed an adaptation of the famous novel. It was among the Top 15 highest grossing films of that year. Not only was it wildly successful at the box office but it was also nominated for six Academy Awards. Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Now jump to 2017 and Kenneth Branagh has taken an acknowledged delight and misdirected the joy out of it.

I guess it doesn’t help that he starts with a stuffy script by Michael Green (Green Lantern). Agatha Christie’s words are inherently light and witty but in Green’s hands the words roll off the actors’ tongues like they’re quoting some ancient manuscript. The property feels dusty and old. He’s omitted the buoyancy and wit and made it dull and lethargic. The suspense has been expunged from the story as well. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ convoluted camera angles often capture the action from overhead or from outside while zooming past the train windows. The discovery of the murdered body is filmed from the ceiling without showing the actual body. This key scene is rendered confusing. What are we witnessing exactly? Was someone killed? The people on screen attest to the fact so we can only assume from their words that someone was.

Kenneth Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. In fact triple duty, because he’s a producer as well. Focus, man, focus. As Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, it’s his mustache that makes the biggest impression. He’s more urbane than previous incarnations but less interesting. He’s missing that spark of a personality that makes him so magnetic. Granted he’s got some big shoes to fill. Albert Finney was pretty iconic in the 1974 release, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. David Suchet earned a BAFTA nomination playing the character on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a TV show that had 13 seasons between 1989 and 2013. Still, Branagh is the only actor that has the opportunity to shine. The rest of the cast are given short shrift. They all blend in together, indistinguishable from the next. Nobody makes an impact. Some of the passengers are supposed to have a connection to each other right from the beginning. These aren’t spoilers. In the novel, this is merely the introduction of the group. Are Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) in an affair? Do Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Mr. Masterman (Derek Jacobi) work for Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp)? The answer is yes to all of the above but you’d hardly know it from the careless way their relationships are presented here.

The all-star ensemble includes such luminaries as Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. Yet there is no one to root for. No one to excite our emotions. It would be challenging since barely anyone, with the exception of Branagh, has the chance to give a performance. Poirot treats the passengers as suspects but we have nothing invested. Each traveler is brought forward for but only a moment and then he’s on to the next person. The dialogue is an afterthought without a propulsive thrust to drive the narrative forward. Someone is killed but the actors seem indifferent. The passengers are suddenly entangled in a murder case and their lack of interest is closer to the reaction you’d exhibit for an overdue library book. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Do you even care? The answer is a resounding no.

Director Kenneth Branagh has taken a thriller and abandoned the thrills – a dramatic mystery minus the suspense. The production looks good. Score, set design and costumes are exquisite. It’s nice seeing so many actors I respect in the same film. And yet, their star presence evaporates like water on a hot stove. They are bored performing their lines with the passion of reciting a grocery list. They can barely contain their apathy. The ultimate revelation is so lethargic when it’s revealed that it induces sleep. They all inexplicably assemble at a long table in perfect alignment “Last Supper” style in a tunnel outside in the snow. It’s a ridiculous end to an interminable movie that runs shorter than the 1974 version but ends up feeling much longer. As my review comes to a close, I must say I resisted the urge to fall back on obvious quips to describe this adaptation. I’m talking phrases like “jumps off the track,” “goes off the rails” and “runs out of steam.” Such puns felt a little too glib and I wanted to rise above such facile jokes. Please forgive this one indiscretion, but yikes, what a train wreck!

11-09-17

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19 Responses to “Murder on the Orient Express”

  1. “he ultimate revelation is so lethargic when it’s revealed that it induces sleep”

    There was one guy in my screening last night who literally was asleep and snoring, quite loudly, by that point in the movie. Such action obviously violates the theater code of ethics, but I envied him.

    My primary takeaway from this movie is Branagh and his cinematographer must have been drawn to the project on the basis of challenging themselves to work within such a tight, confined space and find different camera movements to make it cinematic. The cast must have been drawn on the basis of getting to work with Mr. Shakespeare himself, Branagh, and take a stab at an old classic. However, the dual goals of director/DP and cast never met in the middle, and we are left with a film which is exactly as inert as you describe.

  2. smilingldsgirl Says:

    We are on same page on this one 😪😪

  3. Yikes! It’s far from a classic but I enjoyed it much more than you did. Fair enough though – the best adaptation’s probably the Suchet for my money

  4. Given that I’ve never seen a single adaptation of Christies work, maybe I’ll find some wiggle room to enjoy this. I hope so, because good Lord. This is Kenneth Branagh we are talking about. The Establishment!

    • When you decide to see your first Agatha Christie adaptation, PLEASE don’t make it this one. You’ll never watch another one again. The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express is probably your best bet.

      Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is even better although it’s based on a play by Agatha Christie (not a novel) which was then adapted from her short story.

      • Sorry my comment was confusing. I’ve seen adaptations of her work before, variations on her And Then There Were None, mostly. But I was planning on making Branagh’s my intro to this story. But maybe I’ll go with Sidney Lumet’s version after all.

  5. I’ve been looking forward to watching this and will. Your line “Yet there is no one to root for. No one to excite our emotions.” Hmm. interesting comment considering the cast.

  6. Look, for anybody that can do to Shakespeare what Branagh did to “Hamlet” and “As You Like It”, making hash out of Agatha’s “Orient Express” has got to be child’s play.

  7. I didn’t hate this as much as you did and I ultimately think it is passable enough for mild enjoyment, but certainly forgettable, maybe because I’ve never been exposed to the 1974 movie or the novel (with the way this plays out though I think I’d be disappointed in the ending as well in the book). I saw your thoughts briefly before I viewed this.

    Had to also reference the murder scene as you did. It caught me so off guard but not in a good way; just felt rushed and treated with no gravitas. Looking at the reveal I guess it’s sort of supposed to be but it’s played and executed very weird. Emjoy most of the camerawork in this movie but there are some weird shots at times.

    Sad that almost all of the talented cast is forgettable aside from Kenneth.

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