Murder on the Orient Express (2017)Reviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 11/10/17 10:00:00
There’s a visual gag at the beginning of Kenneth Branagh’s wholly unnecessary and inconsequential big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel “Murder on the Orient Express” that defines the film as a whole. On his way to solving a case involving the disappearance of a religious relic in front of a religiously diverse audience by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) steps on shit —horse, dog, donkey, it doesn’t matter. The always fuzzy and prickly detective looks down and realizes that this won’t do: only one shoe is deeply submerged in do-do, a blight in his search for perfection. So, he steps on the pile with his other shoe, creating two perfect impressions. All is well with the universe. Yes, Christie’s beloved creation immortalized by a twinkly Peter Ustinov in a series of films in the late 70s and early to mid-80s (the less said about Albert Finney’s ludicrously cartoonish performance in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 star-studded Academy Award winning adaptation of the same novel, the better) and by David Suchet for ITV and PBS from 1989 to 2013 —whose magnificent performance as the detective casts a long shadow against any future takes on the character— has been reduced to this.If that were the only thing wrong with this vanity project. For that is what this adaptation truly is, a vanity project, one that offers no new insights to a material that has been adapted multiple times, most recently as a modern day production starring Alfred Molina as the sleuth that aired on CBS on 2001, and the 2013 adaptation starring Suchet and set four years after the novel’s original publication. Molina’s performance as Poirot was more straightforward, less mannered, his moustache —Poirot’s distinguishing trademark— as commonsensical as his persona. This was an “Orient Express” where characters ripped apart VHS tapes and spoke on cell phones and where Poirot used a laptop for his investigation. The 2013 adaptation took some liberties with the material, exploring Poirot’s Catholic faith and doubts as he questions his own definitions of truth and justice, giving heft to what is basically a cozy locked-door whodunit.
Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (“Logan,” “Blade Runner 2049”) take an equal number of liberties with the source material for this second big screen adaptation. Not only do they give us a Poirot that is fuzzy about the size of his hard-boiled eggs and seeks perfection even in a whole tray of freshly baked bread, but one who has a romantic backstory as well because Hollywood demands one. Poirot is also a man who can turn into a swashbuckling action hero in an instant (even though the original Christie novels were far more cerebral). But wait, there is still more. Branagh delivers a star-studded film in the tradition of past Christie adaptations featuring a culturally diverse cast as well. Nothing wrong with that except for the fact that most of these characters are poorly written, poorly conceived, and are given very little to do. They are props at the service of Branagh’s Prima Donna performance… and his wraparound moustache.
Branagh and Green have left the facts of the case intact, to wit: Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul on his way to solve a case in England. He shares the car and its luxurious accommodations with valets, secretaries, members of royalty, missionaries, academics with certain unsavory views about race and a ruthless American businessman by the name of Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp looking artificially tanned and trying to sound like a goon out of a Raymond Chandler novel). An avalanche derails the train somewhere near Belgrade; Ratchett is murdered, stabbed 12 times, the door to his cabin (next door to Poirot’s) locked, the window left open and his alarm clock broken at what appears to be the time of death. Poirot soon realizes that Ratchett is, in fact, Cassetti, the man who kidnapped and murdered three-year-old heiress Daisy Armstrong, a crime for which her nursemaid was unfairly accused and tried, a crime which resulted in the death by child birth of Daisy’s mother and her father’s suicide. Poirot also discovers that each passenger has been lying about his or her identity and that each has a connection to the Armstrong case. Those are the story’s bare bones; what Branagh and Green do with them, that’s a whole other story.
One of the greatest pleasures derived from reading or watching a detective story is putting the pieces of the puzzle together alongside the detective; key to that pleasure is how the suspects are presented to the reader or viewer, whether through the detective’s own inquiries or by exploring their back story or showing how they interact with each other before the deed is done. But, unlike the TV series or even those delightful films starring Ustinov, you hardly see Poirot make use ofthis “little grey cells.” We do see him chase after a suspect underneath a bridge and get shot at. But Poirot thinking, his hands clasped, his eyes shut until he smiles and utters “of course”? Nope. What we get is Branagh positioned center frame in every single scene, trying to tame his iffy Belgian accent and his worst thespian impulses (which doesn’t stop him from hamming it up in the film’s first ten minutes).
One feels sorry for this cast. Derek Jacobi (as Ratchett’s valet), Penelope Cruz (as a devout missionary), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (as a former chauffeur turned entrepreneur) and Dame Judy Dench and Olivia Colman (as a countess and her handmaiden) are given little to do even during the interrogation sequences. They barely register as a presence. Branagh further insults our intelligence by gratuitously adding references to the era’s racial divide and ugly nationalism to then treat them as a joke. And it helps little that the film looks so dull with its obvious CGI backdrops and panoramas. No matter how much product placement Godiva’s chocolates receives at one point in the film, this is one unglamorous ride on the Orient Express.In fact, considering its director’s credentials, this latest entry on Branagh’s curriculum vitae is frightfully conservative, even with its excessive use of canted angles and eagle-eye shots and a final reveal that is essentially DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” revisited. More so when you consider how daring Branagh’s early films were in modernizing and testing the limits of Shakespeare on the big screen. Even his failures, like his adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” were far more interesting than this insipid contraption. Although, really, one shouldn't be surprised by this turn of events when one considers that Branagh's latest directorial output were franchise and studio-driven. If he was so eager to play the legendary detective, he could have at least chosen a different Agatha Christie novel to tackle and not one that has been better adapted.
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