Murder On the Orient Express

November 15, 2017 by  

Agatha Christie is the definition of who-dun-it crime stories. Anytime you think of murder mystery, her name immediately comes to mind–and for good reason. One of her most popular stories, “Murder On the Orient Express”, had been adapted a few times before this 2017 version. Its’ most notable is the 1974 version with Albert Finney as the famous detective Hercule Poirot. The story follows a train carrying a load of passengers, seemingly unfamiliar with each other but all recognize Poirot. After the murder of one of the patrons, Poirot has to solve the crime, while the train pushes through the chilly landscape of Eurasia.

The film begins with Poirot solving a robbery case in Jerusalem. Thinking this is his last case before a well deserved break, he decides to go to Istanbul–but he receives a telegram telling him he must go to London to solve another case. So, he is booked on the unusually booked Orient Express, with the help of a friend–the director of the Express–Bouc (Tom Bateman). Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is somewhat dismayed, but tries to put on a happy face (beneath a very studious mustache), as he joins a very eclectic group of people ranging from aristocrats to the lower class, on their way.

He is nearly immediately approached by a gruff individual, Sam Ratchett (Johnny Depp), to be his bodyguard, and provide him safe travel until they depart. Ratchett, an unsavory businessman, promises to pay Poirot a handsome figure to help him. Poirot refuses, saying there’s something about his face he doesn’t like. Ratchett is incensed, but lets it go. Poirot retires to his bunk, trying to enjoy reading Charles Dickens, and forlorn over a past presence in his life, until he hears commotion, as the train gets hit by an avalanche, derailing it and stranding the passengers.

That’s not the only problem, however, as it turns out the next day that there has been a murder. Every passenger on board is a suspect, and Poirot must use his world-class techniques in order to solve the case. Not only is everyone a suspect, but they all act in suspect ways: there is a great cast here. Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) seem to be a secret couple, and have shifty antics that lead Poirot to mistrust them when he interviews them. There’s Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), a racist German–but actually undercover detective–and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), who has as an annoying dog and is quite indignant about being questioned. Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), is also under suspicion, as he might know more than he lets on. There’s also Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), who at first you would think would have nothing to do with such a “sin” as murder.

The story unfolds in a way that I can’t let on too much without revealing more than I should. After all, this is a murder mystery. The less you know, the better off you are in enjoying this lark. And for the most part, it is entertaining. Branagh chews scenery like he normally does–and he’s likable enough. The cast does a great job of tying the whole thing together–and the payoff, of course, is very satisfying. But not completely predictable, unless you’re already familiar with the story itself.

Poirot is eccentric, and he is fun as the focal point. I do think Branagh could have spent a little more time with the rest of the characters, getting to know their pasts in a way that isn’t in direct connection to the murder plot–just backgrounds on them or more personality would have been very welcome.

As it is, however, it is a good enough film and stands on its own–not as memorable perhaps as the 1974 adaptation–but certainly worthy of Christie’s work. Some of the filming is stagy, as Branagh is a big “theater” person; but there are some nice cinematic touches as well. And besides the obvious CGI, the train itself is a personality, and an intriguing one at that.

My rating: :-)

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