(2017—Director: Kenneth Branagh)
(out of 5 stars)
“I believe it takes a fracture of the soul to murder another human being.” — Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) to Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley)
Potential spoilers below
Every new generation receives updated adaptations of classic works of literature. Their quality may tend to trend downward, but each serves as an apt time capsule, often in showcasing that generation’s popular stars, character actors, or a mix of both. Actor-director Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express (with a script by Michael Green of Logan and Blade Runner 2049 from earlier this year) is one such time capsule. Branagh’s Murder adds little in terms of story and style, and the muted relevance of the traditional “movie star” erodes at the effectiveness of Branagh’s film as well, especially compared to the novel’s first big-screen adaptation from 1974 (with storied director Sidney Lumet behind the camera). Only by the assured strength of Branagh’s Hercule Poirot in addition to a couple of spirited supporting turns does the film pass the cultural update exam, and with a fraction of the fanfare such an accomplishment would have received several decades earlier.
World-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, directing himself) is fresh off of solving a theft in Jerusalem. Despite his need for a well-deserved break, a new case calls him to London. Poirot takes a ferry to Istanbul, where Bouc (Tom Bateman, Snatched, ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde), his friend and director of the Paris-bound Orient Express, arranges a cabin for him on the elegant and famous train. A colorful assortment of passengers join Poirot in the rare occasion of a fully-booked Orient Express, including Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a shifty American businessman. Ratchett attempts to hire Poirot as a bodyguard during the first evening, but Poirot refuses. The next morning, an avalanche strands the train. As the passengers and crew await a team from the next station to arrive and handle the setback, they discover the body of Ratchett, stabbed to death twelve times in his cabin. Poirot knows the unlikelihood of an outside assassin boarding the train from the mountains and its unforgiving blizzards. Therefore, he turns toward the only remaining possible suspects—his fellow passengers (among them Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Daisy Ridley).
One would find it difficult to deny that Kenneth Branagh is the acting rock of Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh and his wondrous mustache camouflages himself into the Hercule Poirot persona—the latest in a distinguished line of actors who have portrayed the famous detective. Compared to Albert Finney’s cheeky yet meticulous, Oscar-nominated rendition in the 1974 film, Branagh’s Poirot is more calculated, his methods more direct and persistent. I would welcome Branagh donning the mustache in another Christie adaptation if he ever chose to do so. Also giving an enticing performance is Johnny Depp as Ratchett (played by Richard Widmark in the 1974 film). Despite his early departure from the story, Depp exudes comfort and confidence as a gangster type. With this, Black Mass (2015), Public Enemies (2009), and Donnie Brasco (1997), Depp should consider more criminal roles once he retires his Captain Jack Sparrow persona. Elsewhere, Michelle Pfeiffer (who made strong use of her short screen time in Mother!) continues to harness her matured American attitude and sensibility in her interpretation of Ms. Hubbard (played by Lauren Becall in the 1974 film). Pfeiffer, as a result of her commitment, benefits the most from the film’s late twists and morality play.
Little remains of noteworthy quality beyond these three performances. Murder on the Orient Express falls under the Hollywood product designed to attract audiences with its ensemble of stars working together on screen. That tends to only work when the screenplay and runtime permit the space for the actors to either play themselves to the fullest or challenge themselves in crafting a full-blooded character with their allocated portions of screen time. I am not the biggest fan of the 1974 Murder, but as I recall, that film devoted the seventeen more minutes it has on Branagh’s film to each passenger’s interrogation. Those seventeen minutes, without the benefit of modern (and increasingly unengaging) visual effects, gave that adaptation much depth and magnified its narrative scale beyond the confined setting. In Branagh’s film, screenwriter Michael Green (capping his string of 2017 films that just miss the mark for me) chooses to condense and shuffle most of the interrogation phase in montages instead, constraining the supporting characters to their faces, brief descriptions of their occupations, and little else. With Marvel’s The Avengers and DC Comics’ Justice League leading the current superhero craze, the appeal of gathering movie stars together in any other subgenre has been muted indefinitely.
In both the narrative and the visuals, actor-director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green could not add enough to elevate this cinematic adaptation of Agatha Christie’s celebrated 1934 novel beyond a fair diversion for older audiences. Alone, it does not restore the old-fashioned Hollywood notion of the “movie star,” which the 1974 Sidney Lumet film thrives in. Branagh ought to have approached the project with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) in mind. Both stories have already been tested time and again (including film versions from 1974), so Branagh should have prioritized experimenting with and adjusting the style to refresh the story for a new generation as Luhrmann did with The Great Gatsby. Yet regardless of the artistic shortcomings, Murder on the Orient Express will likely receive an update, either on the big screen or the small screen, for a new audience to encounter.
If that does not comfort Branagh, then perhaps he should don the fabulous mustache again in the near-future and pursue another mystery to enthrall us all.
(Parental Note: Murder on the Orient Express has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for violence and thematic elements.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate violence” and “occasional bloody images” and rated A-III (Adults and adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “a vengeance theme, scenes of violence, some gory images, a couple of uses of profanity, a few milder oaths, and occasional sexual references.”)