Murder on the Orient Express

murder-orient-exp-17-rev Murder on the Orient Express  (2017)    20th Century Fox/Suspense-Thriller    RT: 114 minutes    Rated PG-13 (violence, thematic elements)    Director: Kenneth Branagh    Screenplay: Michael Green    Music: Patrick Doyle    Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos    Release date: November 10, 2017 (US)    Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison.

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 I’ve long felt that a new Agatha Christie adaptation is long overdue. The last one was the terrible Ten Little Indians in 1989. The idea of introducing a new generation to a traditional murder mystery from one of the greatest crime writers of all time is a gem of an idea. What better novel to adapt than Murder on the Orient Express, a murder mystery set aboard the titular passenger train that originally ran from Istanbul to Paris. It features her greatest creation, the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot who never met a case he couldn’t crack. I never read the book but I saw the original 1974 movie a few times. It’s great! Unfortunately, the new Murder on the Orient Express is far from great.

murder orient exp 17 Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) stars as Poirot, a casting decision I had trouble getting my mind around. He’s been portrayed in the past by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet. I envision him the same way I did went I saw my first Christie movie, 1982’s Evil Under the Sun starring Ustinov. I see him a short, fat guy with a penchant for fine food. I couldn’t see Branagh playing him. However, I could easily see Branagh casting himself in the role as he also directs this new version. This is the same chap that cast himself as Dr. Frankenstein in his insane take on Mary Shelley’s novel in ’94. I still had confidence in his directorial skills though. He did wonders with 1989’s Henry V, he made it relevant. He also did great with his ambitious four-hour version of Hamlet (1996), the first Thor movie and 2015’s live-action Cinderella. Sadly, he drops the ball with Murder on the Orient Express by turning it into a stuffy, muddled bore.

 It starts out nicely with Poirot solving a case in Jerusalem involving three clerics (a priest, a rabbi and an imam) and a purloined religious artifact. This scene promises the viewer a good time as we get to see the detective’s superior skills at work. He’s about to embark on a long-needed, much-delayed vacation when he’s called back to London on another case. His friend Bouc (Bateman, Snatched), director of the Orient Express, sets him up with a compartment despite the train being fully booked. Poirot is approached by fellow passenger, Samuel Ratchett (Depp, the POTC movies), an American businessman in need of protection. He wants to hire Poirot to watch his back but the detective turns him down cold. He doesn’t like the guy. Later that night, Ratchett is stabbed to death in his compartment. At the same time, an avalanche causes the train to derail. Bouc asks Poirot to investigate and solve the murder before they reach their next stop (in a few days’ time).

 Up until this point, Murder on the Orient Express is pretty good. We’re introduced to a bunch of characters, any of whom could be the killer. It’s clear that some of them (or maybe all of them) have something to hide. After a promising set-up, it starts to run out of steam before halting altogether. It becomes a series of dull scenes of Poirot interrogating each passenger. It gets convoluted. I saw the Sidney Lumet version multiple times and still got lost. Then, in the final act, it gets too dark for its own good. Actually, it takes on too serious a tone long before that. Unlike other adaptations, there’s not enough levity afoot. Usually, Christie’s murder mysteries are fun and light-hearted. Well, fun and light-hearted for a story where somebody is murdered. They’re also clever and I didn’t feel that in Branagh’s version. It’s rather disheartening how badly he botches Murder on the Orient Express especially when it could have been really good, maybe even great.

 For one thing, it’s been a very long time since anybody’s attempted a star-studded production like the ones Hollywood used to make. The original Murder on the Orient Express had a great cast that included (in addition to Finney) Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar), Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Jacqueline Bissett, Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael York, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel. The new one stars (in addition to Branagh and Depp) Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley. It’s a solid cast but there’s little in the way of character development. Poirot is the only fully fleshed-out character here. That’s another troubling aspect of this version.

 I got an Asperger’s/OCD vibe from Branagh’s Poirot. He starts out by obsessing over his two four-minute eggs at breakfast not being perfectly symmetrical. He’s fussy about his appearance and that of others. He’s always asking people to straighten their ties. He’s not very social, at one point saying he prefers to be alone when somebody asks if they may join him for dessert. Then there’s that ridiculous moustache. It’s a deal-breaker. It’s actually distracting. What the hell was Branagh thinking? Overall, I find his depiction of Poirot stiff and somber. I will concede that Murder on the Orient Express is a handsome production. It looks good. It’s authentic to its time (1934). The costumes are great. However, this provides little in the way of compensation. This Murder on the Orient Express is boring. I struggled to stay awake at several points. It’s a huge disappointment. The big question isn’t whodunit but why did they do it. Call this one Muddle on the Orient Express.

SPOILER ALERT! Okay, many have been asking if the ending is the same as the original. I’ll tell you if you really want to know but if you don’t, I suggest you read no further. Is it okay to proceed? Good, here goes. The ending is ALMOST the same save for a couple of details. Satisfied? 

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