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“Murder on the Orient Express” delivers exquisitely shot blockbuster fare

The latest film version of Agatha Christie's classic novel is well cast and beautifully shot, but falls short at times with the script.

If there is one thing that hasn’t changed since the 1935 publication of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, it’s the appeal of a proper, gripping mystery. The way we consume these stories, however, has changed. But what hasn’t is the process of experiencing a master of detection do their work every step of the way and engaging right along with them. As far as this format goes, you can’t do much better than Christie’s opus, a work of genius popular literature that is accessible to just about everyone. With the release of the this film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, we are given the first major motion picture adaptation since 1974’s version starring Albert Finney.

The film has a lot to live up to in many ways — the legacy of the book and previous versions, as well as expectations cooked up by the film’s impressive cast, in front of and behind the camera. The result is the film impresses, for the most part. It’s a well put together blockbuster that entertains on most levels.

Many will already be familiar with the rather simplistic plot. The story starts with world-class detective Hercule Poirot, who is on his way back to London from Istanbul, catching a seat on the Orient Express at the last minute. He finds himself with a large, diverse group of individuals. During the night, a snowdrift delays the train. During this time the murderer strikes — leaving every one of the twelve remaining passengers suspect.  

Let’s begin with the positives. The cinematography is stunning. Much of the action takes place on the titular locomotive, of course, but this doesn’t stop Kenneth Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos from going all out on the camera work. The lavish sets in the train are on full display and showcased using every trick they have at their disposal. There are tracking shots, long shots, overhead shots. The attention to detail is of the type you would expect from the films of Merchant-Ivory or Wes Anderson. What makes it all the more impressive is the fact that they are working within constraints but able to mine from it consistently and inventively. While you may be put off by the claustrophobic, limited scenery aspect, the visual style more than makes up for this.

The cast is amazing. We don’t get as many films these days that are just an excuse for a grand cast of A-list actors to play off each other, so it’s refreshing to just bask in this stellar cast. Everyone is perfect for their roles; Johnny Depp as the suspicious American businessman, Daisy Ridley as the governess Mary Debenham, Leslie Odom Jr. as the British doctor, Josh Gad as the American lawyer, Derek Jacobi as the butler, Wilem Dafoe as a mysterious professor, Michelle Pfeiffer as the American widow. These are all the standard roles you expect from a classic mystery, and the cast is aware of this. This is precisely what makes the movie enjoyable, this sense of infectious fun that seeps from the cast working together. When it diverges from this, it lags.

Judi Dench and Olivia Coleman as Princess Dragomiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt.

Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian sleuth Poirot, while not perhaps the most likely choice for the role, does a great job. What he lacks in weight, he more than makes up for with the might of his mustaches. It’s a two layer job that redefines the scope of cinematic facial hair. In the role itself, he is able to channel peculiarities of the sleuth, right down to that ridiculous accent, which just comes with the role at this point. See Finney and Ustinov’s earlier portrayals for evidence. It’s part of the fun, and Branagh is in on it. He is able to master this balance between parody and self-awareness of the character’s strange habits.

The screenplay is by Michael Green, the maverick writer responsible for successes this year including Logan, Blade Runner 2049 and six episodes of the American Gods series. The dialogue is spot on. The banter between the characters is delightful and keeps with the spirit of the book even when it diverges from direct quotes. It hits this great blockbuster balance that hinted at earlier with Branagh’s performance. The film is just a big, lavishly dressed mystery, and for the most part relishes in this aspect.

When it diverges too far from the book, we meet some problems. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to be one of those viewers who can’t seem to accept the fact that any changes were made to the source material. When adapting something for the screen, changes must be made to compensate for the difference in mediums. Some things in books can’t be done as easily on screen. The smaller changes that remain in the spirit of the original book are fine. The problems come when the screenplay attempts to add suspense in places where there wasn’t any in the book. A chase is added in the middle that comes out of nowhere, and just feels needlessly melodramatic. The resolution of the overall conflict is also delayed by a similar melodramatic digression.

Johnny Depp, pictured in his role as Ratchett from the film.

It’s as if Green, or Branagh or whomever behind the scenes decided that the original book alone wasn’t enough for modern audiences, and that extra drama and angst needed to be added. These unnecessary moments stick out like sore thumbs. The suspense in the original story comes from the solving of the murder and the film would have worked fine if these unneeded excursions had been cut. Other minor issues are some attempts to add angst to the Poirot character. He is given a “lost love” that he mourns in his berth while off duty. This defeats the purpose of Poirot’s character. He never seemed like a romantic. This plot point was not a part of the original book and it doesn’t enhance the film or the solving of the mystery at all.

Looking past these problems, the film is a very entertaining, well put together piece. The performances are all on point and there is an infectious sense of fun that persists throughout. If you are looking for a film that is sure to be a delightful time during the holiday weekend, one that allows you to have a quick break, an escape from all the turmoils of the world, don’t miss Murder on the Orient Express.

 

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“Murder on the Orient Express” delivers exquisitely shot blockbuster fare