Sponsor

New Release Review - MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS review
Detective Hercule Poirot must solve a murder on the world's most famous train.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr, Derek Jacobi

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS poster


There's a moment early on in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express in which the great detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh himself) steps in a steaming pile of horseshit. Driven by his OCD, Poirot steps into the mound with his other shoe, claiming he isn't bothered by the mess as much as the imbalance. It serves as a fitting metaphor for the entire project. Murder on the Orient Express is itself a steaming pile of manure, and Branagh comes out of it with a lot of shit on his shoes.

Branagh made a name for himself with his acclaimed adaptations of Shakespeare in the late '80s and early '90s, and is credited with reviving a public interest in the work of the bard. It's no great surprise then that he should be so faithful to the work of another British literary giant in adapting Christie, but such fealty is decidedly misjudged in this case. One reductively surmises the main audience for Murder on the Orient Express will be older viewers, the majority of whom will be familiar with the plot through having either read the story or seen one of the previous big or small screen adaptations of the tale.


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Younger viewers who adopt this as their first experience of Christie's mystery will likely find it laughably ludicrous, as details that read plausibly in print are rendered nonsensical when acted out on screen. When the camera puts us in the confined space of the train with Poirot and his many suspects, it becomes impossible to believe the detective couldn't put two and two together a lot earlier.

For the sake of such newcomers to Christie's work, I won't delve into the plot here. Suffice to say it involves Poirot taking a trip on the titular train and having his legendary investigative skills called upon when a fellow passenger is found murdered. At first, it seems none of the potential suspects have any connection to the victim, but Poirot's sniffing around ultimately leads to everyone having a possible motive.

As with The Snowman and Suburbicon, Murder on the Orient Express is another of 2017's all-star disasters. Aside from how ridiculous Christie's plot plays out on screen, the film's biggest issue is its bizarrely uneven tone. For the first 30 minutes or so, it seems Branagh intends to do for Poirot what Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jnr did for Sherlock Holmes, turning a character renowned for his intelligence into a walking joke. His face wrapped in a comedy moustache, Branagh plays Christie's Belgian sleuth in annoyingly over-the-top fashion with an accent more befitting Inspector Clouseau than Hercule Poirot. As with the Pink Panther movies, here we have a comic detective surrounded by an otherwise stony-faced set of suspects, and it's impossible to take any of this seriously when Branagh seems so intent on mining cheap laughs from a plotline that involves some very dark elements.


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

You know a movie is in trouble when its most nuanced performance comes from Johnny Depp, but the usually irritating star delivers what might be his most convincing performance this century. For a change, it feels like Depp is playing a human here, rather than an alien wrapped in a flesh mask. The film's only standout scene involves a conversation between Depp and Branagh, who himself manages to dial down his theatrics and tease an idea of the performance driven piece this could have been. Branagh films this dialogue exchange in straightforward fashion, wisely letting the actors carry the scene. Elsewhere he seems bored with the confined space he's forced to film in, shooting whole scenes from a bird's eye view, leaving us to gaze at the tops of his cast's heads. In her feisty introduction, Michelle Pfeiffer makes an early case for being the film's MVP, but she's all too absent from the rest of the movie.

Branagh retains the 1934 setting, but his film makes great pains in pointing out what an insensitive era it was (nobody needs reminding of the original title of Christie's 'Ten little Indians'), with Poirot making a point to criticise characters for their racism. As well-meaning as this is, it feels anachronistic, and it's also incredibly hypocritical in a movie that casts American and British actors in a variety of continental European roles while changing the race of other characters to accommodate Anglo-Saxon stars. One notable change to Christie's novel shoehorns in an inter-racial romance between lovers played by Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jnr, the latter either playing an American pretending to be British or a Brit pretending to be a Yank - the film keeps contradicting itself on this point.


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Murder on the Orient Express is an absolute mess, but a mess can still be entertaining. Branagh's film however is simply a bore. For all its lavish CG renderings of Eurasian cities and landscapes, it essentially boils down to a series of dull and misguided conversations between a detective and suspects who belong in completely different movies.

Christie's tale has been filmed several times in the past. None of them are great movies - as the whodunnit format simply doesn't make for thrilling cinema in the way a Hitchcock movie, which tells us straight up who the villain is and leads to nail-biting suspense as a result, does - but if you must indulge in Murder on the Orient Express, I'd cancel this trip and catch an earlier one.

Murder on the Orient Express is in UK/ROI cinemas November 3rd.



discussion by