Mark Reviews Movies

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Tom Bateman, Leslie Odom Jr., Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Sergei Polunin, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence and thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:54

Release Date: 11/10/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 9, 2017

The Hercule Poirot of Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is a man of foresight, keen observation, and moral clarity. That last part is vital to his experience in this tale, from Agatha Christie's novel of the same name, which has been adapted a few times across film, television, and radio. The story is famous for its iconic setup—obviously garnered by the title—and its rather elegant solution to the central mystery—or as elegant as a case of bloody murder can be.

Branagh doesn't seem too keen on picking apart the process of solving the case, either because he knows the conclusion is famous or because he knows that, in the grand scheme of things, the process in this case turns out to be unnecessary. We can follow the detective's interviews, the "riot of clues," and the thinking of all of the suspects here, but Branagh would rather keep his focus on screenwriter Michael Green's interpretation of Christie's famed sleuth.

The reasons are obvious. In Christie's time (and in the time since), Poirot was as famous as a fictional character could be. In his grooming and his more general ways, he's a particular and peculiar man, with an elaborate mustache and a gift/curse for, as he puts it here, seeing the world "as it should be." Any imperfection or oddity stands out to him in a way that's intolerable to his sense of order in the universe. Finally, Branagh himself plays the character, so it's almost a given that the director wants to highlight his own performance with a sense of pride.

That pride is well-earned, too. Branagh's performance underlines the comic elements of the character with an unexpected level of the tragic. The running joke is that Poirot, who arrives on the eponymous train almost immediately after solving one mystery, can never catch a break.

After figuring out the strange disappearance of a holy relic in Jerusalem (The main suspects are a priest, a rabbi, and an imam, and even the great detective himself is tickled pink by the lineup), he's being called back to London to help with yet another case. The opening scene in Jerusalem is an especially clever move by Green. Upon meeting Poriot, we get to see him in action, note how he anticipates things before they happen, and hear his philosophy on the nature of right and wrong. There are, by his estimation, only those two things, with no space in between them. By the end, the tragedy is that his entire way of looking at the world crumbles when faced with a tragedy that is too much for him to comprehend.

The train ride, secured by Poirot's friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), is supposed to be quiet and a brief vacation for Poirot, who spends his downtime reading and laughing at A Tale of Two Cities. There's not much downtime, since a man named Ratchett (Johnny Depp) approaches the detective with a business proposition. The man, a dealer in rugs and art, has ended up on the wrong side of some gangsters and has been receiving threatening notes. He asks for Poirot's protection, and the detective dismisses him coldly. After all, Ratchett has put himself in this position, and Poirot would rather not be associated with such a person.

Ratchett isn't long for the world, of course, and in the morning, his dead body, having been stabbed a dozen times, is in the compartment next to Poirot's. Someone on the train killed Ratchett, obviously. Clues litter the compartment, but they are of little interest to Poirot, who knows a littering of clues is too good to be true. To further complicate matters, an avalanche strands the train along a bridge.

The suspects—everyone who is onboard the train—are lined up, and Poirot begins his interviews. There are two ways to approach this process: Focus on the details of the case, or focus on the performances. Since Branagh has assembled a pretty impressive cast for the material, he chooses the second option.

There's Michelle Pfeiffer, playing Caroline Hubbard, a woman who's rumored to be and admits to being a notorious husband-hunter. Josh Gad plays Ratchett's secretary MacQueen, a man who knew the trouble in which his boss became entangled but didn't think highly enough of the man to say anything about it. Penélope Cruz plays a missionary who won't stop talking about God, and Daisy Ridley plays Mary, a governess who's trying to keep her relationship with Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) a secret, because it's the 1930s, when certain people don't take kindly to the notion of an interracial romance. Gerhard, played by Willem Dafoe, is an Austrian professor who follows that prejudicial thinking.

There are more, of course, including Judi Dench as the stern Princess Dragomiroff and Olivia Colman as her maid. Derek Jacobi plays Ratchett's valet, who also didn't think too much of his boss, and Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin appear as a countess, who has a barbiturate addiction, and a count, who has a nasty temper.

A list of the cast is important, if only to suggest the mode in which Branagh is working. Much like Sidney Lumet (who directed the 1974 adaptation of the novel) before him, Branagh has set his sights on a making a sophisticated, old-fashioned spectacle of design, formal simplicity, and narrative clarity. It looks great, with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos emphasizing the blue-tinted cold of the stranded train. The cast is game, and Branagh's interpretation of Poirot makes for solid tragic-comic anchor. There's not much more to say about Murder on the Orient Express, except that it works.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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