Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Everyone is a suspect
When the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express dropped, it sent the internet into a cyber-frenzy of sorts, not because Branagh’s new take on the classic Agatha Christie whodunit was being shot in glorious 65mm. No. Nor was it the star-studded cast or the promise of a return to old-fashioned filmmaking. Nope. It was the magnificent grey beast that had taken residency right under Branagh’s trunk. Maybe this face furniture was specifically designed to steal scenes (and possibly one’s girlfriend), Branagh’s Muzzy even threatening to nab a best supporting Oscar at next year’s ceremony. It’s as if the director and star wanted to make some sort of a statement playing world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, a character who Albert Finney personified in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation and David Suchet later portrayed in the telly series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013). Evidently, it appears as though the simple wax-tipped lip rug wasn’t manly enough for 21st century sensibilities and needed to be one-upped, or in this case utterly obliterated, Branagh sporting one of the beefiest mustaches ever committed to celluloid.
Oh, yeah, the movie. Well, if you haven’t read the book, Murder on the Orient Express takes place in the early 1930s, and follows famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) who, after having solved a big case at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, is called back to Britain via telegram for his next assignment. The quickest way there is to take the Orient Express, a three-day trip on a lavish locomotive traveling from his current location of Istanbul through the Dinaric Alps, before finishing up at Calais, France. Although the luxury liner is completely full, Poirot happens to be chums with its current director, Bouc (Tom Bateman), who squeezes Branagh’s whiskered investigator on-board.
Coincidentally, it turns out that the rest of the passengers in the carriage resemble suspects from a Cluedo board game. We have seedy scar-faced art dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his nervous assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and trusted butler Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi). We also have an alluring husband-hunting widow named Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) as well as her stark contrast, an unhappy missionary, Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz). Then there’s arrogant Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), whose political views annoy commuters almost right away, and Italian car salesman Beniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). There’s also a splash of royalty in the count and countess, ballet dancers Rudolph and Elena Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton respectively), and elderly Russki princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), who’s joined by her gloomy maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman). Last but not least, we have breakout star Daisy Ridley from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) who portrays Mary Debenham, a beautiful governess with a penchant for photography, while Leslie Odom Jr. personifies her secret lover, a young black doctor named Arbuthnot.
Of all the exotic personalities on-board, only Branagh’s exaggerated dick is given any sort of character arc, the 56-year-old clearly more interested in Poirot’s weepy back-story, hammy accent and ostentatious mustache (which calls for its own sleeping cover) other than any of the beguiling suspects. Introduced as a fusspot who’s OCD about balance — we see him measure the eggs he eats for breakfast to ensure they’re the same size, then deliberately step into a pile of horse pucky after accidentally getting it under one shoe — Poirot finds himself in a bit of a Catch-22 when the (mostly digital) train comes to a sudden stop after an avalanche causes it to halt atop a dangerous wooden trestle. This is further compounded when hoodlum Ratchett is found dead in his sleeping quarters, having been stabbed numerous times in a classic ‘locked-door’ mystery — this sequence shot from an overhead bird’s-eye view, channeling Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). Now, Poirot must use every tool of his trade to uncover which of the train’s eclectic passengers is the murderer, before he or she strikes again.
I wish I could say that the film picks up steam after the snuff, Poirot’s talk-y investigation taking center stage as he begins to interrogate the first and second-class passengers who might’ve had access to Ratchett’s cabin. Alas, even though Branagh uses all of the bells and whistles of modern-day cinema to try and elevate this overproduced literary adaptation — which probably features more Dutch angles than Branagh’s Thor (2011) — the flick is ultimately hindered by its slow, pedestrian pace. The script by Michael Green, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), doesn’t help either, Green’s writing struggling to juggle the sheer number of individuals aboard the Express, the screenplay glossing over intricate character details and spending too much time with the self-proclaimed ‘greatest detective in the world’ without ever getting into his mind to see how he untangled the whole elaborate scheme.
Unfortunately, the lengthy inquiry culminates with third act exposition dump that’s borderline anticlimactic, the final revelation failing to deliver that gasping conclusion patrons have come to expect from today’s action-heavy cinema — those who already know Christie’s ending will probably shrug the whole thing off, while newcomers might walk out not having understood many of the particulars behind the knotty puzzle.
Dotted with famous faces, the performers get by, each of the cast doing the best they can to standout from their sublime costumes or the extravagant backdrop. Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows (2012), who, at age 59, is still as smokin’ as ever, is great as the seductive Caroline, whilst Daisy Ridley proves that she can perform without a lightsaber in her hands. Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands (1990), chews the scenery in an extended cameo as the paranoid businessman Ratchett — which is actually an alias to hide his dastardly gangster identity, Cassetti — while Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast (2017), has too much screen time as Depp’s slimy accountant. Judi Dench, Skyfall (2012), is given next-to-no dialogue as snobbish Princess Dragomiroff, a Russian dame who believes that the coach is beneath her standards. The same goes for the always-excellent Lucy Boynton — best known for her role in last year’s terrific Sing Street (2016) — who’s wasted as the underdeveloped Countess Elena, a nocturnal ex-ballerina shrouded in mystery. Then we have that exquisite bit of facial hair, Branagh’s ‘classy stachey,’ which is even more impressive than that record-breaking closer, the longest 65mm Steadicam shot ever captured on film.
Although Branagh strives to make his Murder on the Orient Express both showy and unique — the cinematography by regular collaborator Haris Zambarloukos, Cinderella (2015), is splendid (chiefly the majestic icy terrain), while the 30s-period design looks about as authentic as Poirot’s flashy flavor saver — the film still winds up feeling frustratingly flaccid. It’s not all bad, though, as Branagh’s fan(tash)tic incarnation of Hercule Poirot is, perhaps, the best we’ve ever seen. Who knows, given the fact that the character has appeared in 33 of Christie’s novels, this could be the start of a very hairy Hercule Poirot cinematic universe.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie