Friday, November 17, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

The celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) expects a brief respite from sleuthing on a three-day luxury train ride from Istanbul to London, but in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS he finds himself confronted with solving the killing of a fellow passenger. The murdered man is Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an American businessman of questionable repute who tried to hire Poirot to protect him during the journey. As the suspect assuredly must be on board the express train, the case would seem to be an easy one to crack for someone with his considerable talents, but it proves to be possibly the greatest challenge of his career.

The social statuses of the passengers complicates the investigation, as who could imagine such esteemed or responsible people descending to act so primitively. Nevertheless, among those to be questioned are the husband-seeking socialite Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Ratchett’s associate Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and the temperamental Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his reclusive wife Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). Not to be overlooked is Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s roguish friend and the director of the Orient Express. Tensions run high among the riders as an avalanche derails the train, leaving them isolated with the unknown murderer until help can arrive.

As director, Branagh packs the compartments with stars, recognizable faces, and the unfamiliar as we attempt to uncover the truth behind the murder alongside his prominently moustached detective. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a decidedly old-fashioned film and one that has been adapted often enough from the Agatha Christie mystery that for some there is no secret in the famous ending of this whodunit. Whether you know what awaits at the big reveal or not, the film’s success hinges on the interactions leading to it.

In that regard, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS can be a bit of a mixed bag. Michael Green’s screenplay unfolds in basic fashion, with Poirot interviewing one person, then the next, and so on. There’s a lot of shoe leather, and with so many suspects to interrogate, the film can ease into a pattern that lulls like the rhythmic clatter of a train on the tracks. Moving action outside the train minimizes the squeeze all parties should feel either as potential victims or as an unmasked killer. The solution should land with a more dramatic flourish instead of the lengthy but momentum-sapping explanation that details the logic and deduction.

While the film is less than fully gratifying as a mystery, Branagh uses the camera with big and bold movements and painterly framing, such as the scene when all the suspects are arranged as if in an elegant police line-up. His Poirot is also more vulnerable than the brilliant character can be portrayed. Although done with a much softer touch implicating the viewers than provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke wield, Branagh broaches the topic of whether a murder, even a fictional one, should be treated as light entertainment. A life has been lost, and the soul of the perpetrator is soiled for eternity. The most surprising quality in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is not putting the pieces of the puzzle together but examining why doing so is attractive in the first place.

Grade: B-

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