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Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Review

Despite Branagh’s effort and his cast’s stellar performance, lines of clumsy fencing and subtle inquiries can’t bounce off characters wittily and intensely enough.

As Monsieur Bouc (Tom Bateman) says about “a melting pot” outside America, the train is a fascinating place for well-trained eyes to observe and analyze the mishmash of unrelated strangers crammed between adjacent dining tables and narrow hallways. The history of cinema started with a train boarding its station, and, in time, the train becomes the claustrophobic, fast-moving setting for many excellent pictures. We had two-hander rom-coms, family dramas, apocalyptic sci-fi adventures, criminal thrillers with international conspiracies, and just last year, a zombie flick in the form of Train to Busan.

This year brings us another film set on a train—Murder on the Orient Express, adapted from the renowned Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name. Christie was a lauded Golden Age writer of detective-mystery novels, and along came her proficient, if fussy, Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, whose name constantly confuses others. Having inspired many murder mysteries, her books spread to other media, with a dozen of film adaptations and the long-running BBC TV series, Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Murder on the Orient Express, the novel itself, had many versions on the big and small screens. The delicious Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 film had Albert Finney, and the Agatha Christie’s Poirot episode had the fan-favorite Poirot, David Suchet. Nobody remembers the TV movie with Alfred Molina, though. In the newest film, British treasure Kenneth Branagh both directs and stars as the detective. However, one must ask, “What does this remake bring to the story?”

First, for viewers not familiar with the startling story of Express, let’s get the premise clear. In 1934, detective Poirot (Branagh) embarks on the Orient Express from Istanbul back to London for an urgent case. The train is strangely full, considering the winter time, but Poirot gets lucky when Bouc, his old friend and director of the Orient Express, offers him a spot on a crowded car. What Poirot sees is a situation that brings people of all social classes together, both aristocratic snobs and working-class citizens. This detail is integral to the soon-to-come mystery when the art dealer Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is stabbed to death in his locked compartment at night. In the morning, an avalanche derails the train and halts the journey, but a brilliant built-in stake, inherited from Christie’s narrative scheme, sustains the sense of urgency. After the Orient Express is excavated, Yugoslavian police will take over the murder case and irresponsibly pick a suspect to hang. Persuaded by a nervous Bouc, Poirot takes over the tough responsibility to solve the case.

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Express opens under Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and introduces our protagonist Poirot in a small case, establishing his character traits—his obsessive-compulsive adherence to universal balance and firm belief on a clear moral line. The prologue, about a corrupt authoritative figure who commits a crime in Jerusalem, foreshadows the theme of the law being incompetent and a question regarding frontier justice. “The greatest detective in the world,” an ex-policeman who follows his own moral code, has a twinkle of narcissism, but Branagh makes this unswerving genius’ demeanor very captivating. However, this Poirot has some antics that bog down the pace and take up screen time. He broods over a star-crossed lover in many scenes, and his “little gray cells” doesn’t strike as much lasting impression as his facial accouterment, which all movie critics used varieties of hyperbole to ridicule.

Despite the focus on the case and Poirot, our eyes are mesmerized by the exquisite cinematography. DP Haris Zambarloukos (Mamma Mia!, Thor) captures both the sweeping scenery of Eastern Europe and the slick design of interiors with wooden walls and wistfully lighted walkway. One tracking shot follows Poirot and Mrs. Hubbard through sections on the train, and a one-take pans and tilts around the Istanbul station. Several overhead shots to put the audience in God-eye view, signaling the start of this mystery as characters look like pieces on a board game. The crime scene is hidden for a moment, and when it is shown, this camera angle keeps a clear look at the clues pointed out by Poirot.

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Before coming to the mainstream in recent films like Thor and the live-action Cinderella, Branagh was known for his Shakespeare film adaptions. Usually casting himself in the lead role (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet), he has a flair for diffusing the charm and attention to his large cast of supporting characters via exchanges of light-hearted insults and gracious group banter (check out Peter’s Friends). However, his detective films aren’t as impressive; Dead Again lacks narrative merit, and the pointless Sleuth remake is purely self-indulgent. Branagh always needs a decent story.

The script by Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner) brings few innovative ideas to Branagh’s directorial hands, but updates the eclectic group of passengers to a more diverse whole. Classy people of wealth live among their less prestigious assistants and strangers—all adorned with tidbits of politeness in the vein of the prideful Old Continent. Some characters are less compelling than others, which accentuates on Christie’s themes about class distinction in contemporary Europe. After re-visiting Sidney Lumet’s strategically arranged pinch points and witty dialogue traded by a loveable cast, I know Branagh must struggle with fleshing out his new ensemble. It’s a crucial matter for old-fashioned whodunits—whether in cult classics like Clue, mind-bending rides like the original Sleuth, or Robert Altman’s esteemed Gosford Park. Otherwise, the new audience would be perplexed with fifteen individuals.

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For starters, Branagh could have set up more social talk among passengers—innuendos and outrageous remarks are always welcome—for new Agatha Christie viewers to absorb such diverse personalities. Unfortunately, Branagh’s aforementioned strength for interactions isn’t visible for most of the film. Of course, suspects are supposed to stay composed and unwavering, but Poirot cases usually offer a special type of cinematic pleasure. We get to see and hear the detective, through his psychological tricks and flexible manners, prying loose ends out of each interviewing—even when he pretends to be impolite or uninformed. It’s a missed opportunity, considering that Branagh already has a stellar cast. Even Depp, receiving franchise roles and riding his residual image of Jack Sparrow, is great in his modest screen time. Ratchett’s conceit and desperation, especially in his voice, are on display during his talk with Poirot. Though he’s the murder victim, viewers won’t have a hard time hating this character.

Among the suspects, Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) takes up the most screen time. The alluring Pfeiffer, less hysterically talkative than other versions of Mrs. Hubbard, emits a variety of thespian dexterity, occasionally devious and unnerved but never too theatrical. The flirtatious woman boasts about her lifestyle to get attention like a stereotype of American women in the 30s. For the governess, Ms. Debenham, Daisy Ridley’s effortless performance gives her adept formality and effective coldness—traits that put up a fight with Poirot’s harsh, strategic attacks on her facade. Whereas one can criticize Ridley for being too young, she makes Debenham not just a stock character of the uncaring spinster. The governess has a hidden secret that reveals her humanity. Dr. Arbuthnot, her love interest, is played by Leslie Odom Jr. as an assertive and sometimes aggressive doctor—an amalgam of the book’s Col. Arbuthnot and Dr. Constantine. The change in his ethnicity adds another layer to the backstory, which involves many tragedies.

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Likewise, Green replaces the shaken, mumbling Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson, who was superbly embodied by Ingrid Bergman in the Lumet film, with the guilt-stricken Pila Estravados (Penélope Cruz), and the Italian chauffeur with a Mexican immigrant—Biniamino Marquez by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe has a chance to be both repulsive and mild-mannered as Gerhard Hardman, a racist Austrian professor. Branagh’s frequent collaborators Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench serve two minor roles, respectively as Rattchett’s humble servant Edward H. Masterman and the snobbish Princess Dragomiroff.

Josh Gad takes on a serious character as Ratchett’s assistant, Hector MacQueen and throws away his body humor. He relies solely on his facial expressions to convey a genuinely traumatized person, destroyed by family tragedy and alcoholism (he travels to avoid the Prohibition era). The ensemble’s weak links are Dragomiroff’s maid, Hildegarde Schmidt (an underused Olivia Colman), and a married couple of Hungarian aristocrats. Lucy Boynton only lends the Countess a frail appearance while ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, as Count Andrenyi, has one scene where he throws a round-house kick to scare the paparazzi away.

There comes a point when most viewers speculate and can even guess the answer, so Branagh overcompensates by using more plot beats to strengthen motivations, avoid repetitive interrogations, or distract viewers from established evidence. These red herrings, including a chase on a trestle bridge, shift the film to the violent tone of a heart-racing adventure. Despite Branagh’s effort and his cast’s performance, lines of clumsy fencing and subtle inquiries can’t bounce off characters as wittily and intensely as how Lumet did in the classic version. In such a multilayered mystery, one expects more from mind games and the verbal play that follows.