PG-13 | 1h 54min | Crime, Drama, Mystery | 10 November 2017 (USA)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Exec Producer: James Prichard
Writers: Michael Green
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz
Ray View Rating: 3
I have never read Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express, or seen any of the earlier movies, so I entered Kenneth Branagh’s version with a clean slate. What I found was a decent period piece that followed the conventions of a Christie who-dunnit, but with some problems and a few of what I suspect were some Branagh “extras.”
Agatha Christie mysteries are driven by the occurrence of a murder with a finite set of suspects, all of whom seem likely culprits. The case is solved by a colorful detective-character who may or may not be an actual police detective. Red herrings are tossed about and the detective must work his way through a web of lies and clues to find the murderer. We have all that in this movie but the resolution is, well, I found it less than satisfying. Maybe A. Christie handles it better.
I had half-expected Branagh to play Hercule Poirot as British, since he is given to doing that kind of thing. He played him as the precise Belgian, however, and did pretty well at it, with a believable accent. His interpretation of the famous mustache, though, was over-the-top. I think that was his intention, but, in my opinion, it didn’t work. It just looked goofy and was more distracting than character-defining.
The opening scene has gleaned some criticism and I think deservedly so. It is set in Jerusalem of 1934 and, while it has the right look, it is a totally unbelievable and unnecessary scene. It is apparently meant to establish Poirot’s fame and detective skills, but I think that could have been better done just going straight into the main story. Some aspects of it were clever, but not enough. At least it didn’t end with a crowd applauding Poirot (though it seemed headed in that direction).
The Orient Express train itself was well done, with it’s journey through the mountains looking good and the interior scenes appealing. It makes you appreciate what Amtrak lacks. There is the problem of Poirot having to share a berth because the train is “crowded” with twelve passengers. What? Also the train is hit by an avalanche and the engine derails. My impression was that the CGI avalanche looked big enough to knock the whole train down the mountain, or at least off the trestle. Then it was dug out and put back on the track by a gang of about ten men. Several grains of salt are needed here.
Those twelve passengers are played by a mostly well-known cast, as seems to be a requirement of movies made from Agatha Christie novels. These are fine actors but most have few lines. One of the better performances is by Johnny Depp who plays an American gangster. Depp really nails this character as one readily recognizable from 1930’s era films (though others have criticized his portrayal as being “not Christie”). Derek Jacobi also nails his character, who is the gangster’s butler. Jacobi plays him as working-class with a cockney accent in contrast to the sophisticates he usually plays. Michelle Pfeiffer has the most lines of the cast of suspects and shows that age has not diminished her acting skills. The rest of the cast is under-used and are mostly box office draws. The exception is Daisy Ridley who shows some promise of not being held to a type cast by Star Wars.
Another one of Mr. Branagh’s “extras” is some racial equity thrown in. And so we see some black Britishers and sympathetic, if minor, Arab characters. Mr. Branagh often does this in his work and it does allow minority actors to have good roles doing Shakespeare and such. He has the role of Arbuthnot done as a black man who has a relationship with Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley). This slant is small but it gets melodramatic. I will, however,l give Mr Branagh points for promoting tolerance.
Overall, this is not a great movie and will probably be panned by Agatha Christie purists and fans of the 1974 movie. Otherwise, it’s kind of fun to see some older actors showing they can still act, even with minimal material. Mr. Branagh has done better, and I hope he’ll do better in the future. I don’t believe, however, that he’ll make a significant mark among portrayers of Hercule Poirot.