Review: “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017)

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The question, “Was this movie really necessary?” is one that accompanies most remakes these days—and as remakes of classic films are occurring more often than not these days, it’s one that is frequently tossed around by critics and moviegoers alike.  It’s a large part of the discussion surrounding Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” a new adaptation of the classic 1934 mystery novel by Agatha Christie, that was previously adapted for film in the acclaimed, all-star 1974 production.

In one respect, the answer to the “is this movie necessary?” question is yes, simply because films like “Murder on the Orient Express” aren’t really made anymore.  It’s the sort of lavish ensemble production that you can only see in the theater, not streaming on Netflix or HBO, and it’s rare to see so many high-caliber stars come together for something other than the occasional fluffy holiday-themed comedy.  Branagh stars as the brilliant detective Hercules Poirot, who departs for London after finishing a case in Jerusalem on board the Orient Express.  It’s the middle of winter in 1934, and the train is unusually fully booked.  The passengers and the stars who play them are numerous, so here’s a handy list:

  • Daisy Ridley plays Mary Debenham, a governess coming from Baghdad.
  • Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Dr. Arbuthnot, who appears to have something going on with Mary.
  • Johnny Depp plays the American gangster Ratchett, who tries to recruit Poirot to help protect him, convinced someone is out to get him after receiving threatening letters.
  • Josh Gad plays Ratchett’s accountant/secretary MacQueen.
  • Penelope Cruz is Pilar, a devout missionary.
  • Judi Dench plays the Princess Dragomiroff.
  • Oliva Colman plays the Princess’s German assistant, Hildegarde.
  • Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Marquez, a mysterious Latin man.
  • Willem Dafoe is the Austrian professor going by the name of Hardman.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer is the glamorous and flirtatious Mrs. Hubbard.
  • Derek Jacobi plays Edward Henry Masterman, Ratchett’s valet
  • Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton play the secretive and volatile Count and Countess Andrenyi.

Besides that fine list of folks, there’s also the train’s staff, which includes Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari), the conductor, and Bouc (Tom Bateman), the director of the train who is also one of Poirot’s friends and helps him solve the case.  It’s easy to see why a cast this large would be both a blessing and a curse for this sort of film.  It’s appropriate that it boasts an all-star cast, as its 1974 predecessor did, and as mentioned before, it’s rare and really rather exciting to see so many, not just big stars, but genuinely talented and award-winning actors playing off each other in one film.  They’re all good (including Depp, playing a rare straight role for once), and they all get a small packet of designated screen time, but ultimately their stories get a bit muddled by the middle of the film.  Some of the characters are a bit more fully developed than others, but in the end, the director gives his star the most screen time—the star being himself.  Branagh appears to relish playing Poirot, from the accent to his mustache and all his eccentricities.  Poirot is the sort of man who wants everything to be perfect, and, as he says in a delightful establishing sequence at the start of the film that demonstrates his intellect and how he solves cases, it’s his ability to see the world’s imperfections that helps him solve crimes.  He’s also rather full of himself, which can be off-putting or endearing, depending on the scene.

A train full of suspects

If you haven’t gathered so much from the title by now, a passenger is murdered one night on board the train.  In an enclosed train car, there are only so many people who could have done it, making all the passengers on board the train a suspect.  A lot of the beginning of the film is spent developing Poirot and setting the scene, which is nice, but makes the climax come together rather hurriedly; like I mentioned, we don’t get to know some of the characters as well as we’d like to.

But it is nice to see a good old-fashioned mystery on the big screen—old fashioned in more ways than one.  “Orient Express” really does manage to whisk viewers away to another time and place, where trains and the passengers who traveled on board them were glamorous affairs.  The film is visually stunning, from the beautiful interiors of the train cars to the postcard-perfect backdrops of European and Middle Eastern cities, notably Jerusalem and Istanbul.  As the passengers prepare to board the Orient Express, Branagh uses a sweeping tracking shot to take audiences around the train station, introducing us not only to the Orient Express but also giving us the first glimpse of many of the passengers who would later become suspects.

Poirot (Branagh) and Mary (Daisy Ridley) partake in one of those unnecessary outdoor scenes

As entertaining and gorgeous as “Murder on the Orient Express” is, it is also in many ways one of those unnecessary remakes.  Branagh doesn’t really bring anything new and different to the story, at least nothing that would make it more worth watching than the great 1974 film—basically, if you’re familiar with the story in any of its previous incarnations, you know how this movie goes down.  On the one hand, it is appropriate that Branagh didn’t try to mess with the original story too much; on the other hand, he tries a lot of tricks that distract from it rather than enhance it.  The murder takes place on the night the train derails due to an avalanche, leaving them stranded until crews can come dig them out.  Part of the charm of “Orient Express” is that it is a chamber mystery; the passengers are trapped in a confined space, and it’s up to Poirot to determine who could have committed the crime within the confines of that space.  But Branagh keeps trying to take us out of the space, making excuses for the passengers to get off the train, and making use of unique camera angles that are distracting as opposed to serving any real purpose—overhead shots of Poirot investigating the crime scene, for instance, or characters viewed through the reflections in glass on the walls.  A veteran of the stage and screen, Branah certainly has vision (the most recent Hollywood blockbusters he directed include Disney’s live-action “Cinderella” and the first “Thor” movie), his vision just doesn’t always work for the benefit of the story.

Back to the question I posed at the beginning of this review: is this film a necessary remake?  Very few remakes are necessary, so no.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad film, or one that should be immediately dismissed without being given a chance.  Despite its flaws, “Murder on the Orient Express” is immensely entertaining and a visual treat, and a film that is best watched in the theater, on the big screen, thrown together with a group of strangers—not unlike the passengers on board the train in the movie.

Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13.


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