Thursday, November 9, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

2017's Murder on the Orient Express isn't the first adaptation of Agatha Christie's work, nor is likely to be the last. Director Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot, offers a stylish version of events featuring an all-star cast as mystery and murder unfold on the renown luxury passenger train which gets stuck in an avalanche with a murderer onboard. And, to make sure his performance won't be forgotten, Branagh sports some of the most bizarre facial hair you'll see on film (at least one not filed under Science Fiction).

The movie gets off to an interesting start by introducing us to Poirot solving an unrelated mystery which sufficiently showcases the detective's considerable deductive ability to the audience. However, from this sequence up until the murder aboard the train, the film stalls a bit while getting Poirot aboard and introducing the variety of characters who will become his suspects over the remainder of the film. Once there's a dead body and mystery to solve, the film picks up again, although the conclusion to Christie's mystery doesn't work quite as well on film as it may on the printed page.

While capturing the feel of an old school Hollywood film in something of a throwback feature, I'm not sure that Branagh's stylish take on the source material helps sell the mystery. It certainly helps show off the lasciviousness of the setting, but the film lacks the claustrophobic feel that you would expect for a confined space involving a dead body, rising tension, and several suspects. It is fun to watch Poirot's process, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos makes some interesting choices in the unusual way certain scenes are framed, but we never really get the feel of being trapped in a confined setting with a murderer. And despite it being the setting for more than 80% of the film, and all of the loving shots we get of it, the train itself never really develops into its own character as it is simply the backdrop of the mystery.

Branagh saves the film's best role for himself, with the possible exception of his character's ridiculous mustache (which ought to get its own line in the closing credits), but there are a few other stand-outs among the cast. I was particularly impressed Daisy Ridley who is cast as the tight-lipped Mary Debenham. Aside from looking perfect in the period costume, she proves she can more than hold her own with whomever she is sharing the screen with. Johnny Depp is also well-cast as the slimy Edward Ratchett. While none are given the same opportunity to shine, be it either by the script's adaptation or the source material, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, and Judi Dench help round out an interesting cast. Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin draw the short-straws in her portrayal of the drugged-out countess and her one-note husband with anger-management issues.

While it may not surprise, Murder on the Orient Express will entertain for most of its near two-hour running time. A solid adaptation, it's not as epic as the the 70mm print may promise (if you can see it on a large screen I'd certainly recommend it), but as a good old fashioned whodunit you could certainly do worse. And that mustache! It must be seen to be believed.

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