Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Evil on this Train: A Review of Murder on the Orient Express

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2017 at 12:07 pm

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by Matt Boyd Smith

There aren’t many changes to the core elements of this classic Agatha Christie story, but Kenneth Branagh’s stately, gorgeously-designed and exciting take on the quintessential locked-room murder mystery manages to remain entertaining and filled with interesting variations on a well-worn genre.

The new Murder on the Orient Express begins with Christie’s master Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) solving the mystery of a missing artifact in Israel, absolving a priest, a rabbi, and an imam of guilt before deducing that the criminal is, in fact, an officer in the police force. If this seems like the set up for a joke, that’s because it is, though the joke’s punchline doesn’t involve the three holy men, but rather Poirot’s canny sense to place his cane just so in the Wailing Wall to clothesline the officer when he tries to run away after being revealed to be a thief. As a brief introduction to the skills of the detective, the sequence is masterful, and it opens up the world of Christie’s tightly-constructed narrative just a enough so as to demonstrate Poirot’s reknown before setting him unwittingly on his next impossible case.

The plot is virtually unchanged. Poirot, headed to London by way of rail for an assignment, has taken passage on the Orient Express, which runs through the entirety of over three days. His first class booking places him in the company of thirteen strangers, all of whom have their own eccentricities, and most of whom Poirot does not much care for. On the second day, the train is caught in an avalanche and partially derailed, and they must wait for a crew from the next stop to clear the train’s path so they can continue. Overnight, one of the passengers is murdered, and clues are intentionally misplaced throughout his cabin to confuse the detective. Who is the killer? Who is framing other passengers for the crime? Poirot must find out before the snow is cleared and the train is on its way without the mystery solved.

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As with all good locked-room mysteries, the success of the story is entirely dependent upon its various elements being laid out before the audience and their relationship to one another logically examined before the murder occurs. Murder on the Orient Express is no exception, and a great deal of time is spent on the train with each passenger before the death of Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp) takes place. Branagh spends much of this time focused on Poirot’s interactions with others, highlighting the small details he picks up on in their behavior and demeanor. We know that Poirot’s strength lies in his ability to make connections between things which are out of place just so, and the first half of the film provides him and us with many possible explanations for the second half.

It also grants Branagh the ability to parade a bevy of movie stars in front of the screen, each one getting their little moment to shine and demonstrate just how good looking they are on camera when dressed in period costumes. And they are extraordinarily good looking. With a cast boasting the likes of Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, just to name a few, their ability to look good wearing 1930s-inspired clothing is unsurprising. The costumes by Academy Award winner Alexandra Byrne and the world imagined and envisioned by Jim Clay is truly phenomenal, reflecting one of the great pleasures of this type of film: the overall production design.

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Branagh’s Poirot is, thankfully, both true to the character as well as distinct from the portrayal by the great David Suchet, who played the detective for 24 years on ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot, which aired on PBS in the United States. The moustache is ridiculous, but it’s very distinguishing, and it serves as a manifestation of the more eccentric and ostentatious parts of Poirot’s rather introspective and anti-social personality. Another scene, early in the film, sees Poirot step in animal droppings in the street, muttering about how frustrated he gets with “imbalance” before stepping in them with his other foot, restoring that balance. The character’s growth itself is also the one major deviation the film makes from the story, entirely in its post-case resolution. Poirot’s own moral quandary comes into play, making the famous ending’s decision to modify the story told to authorities carry a heavier weight on his own conscience.

The film takes its time solving the murder, and although it changes nothing about the result itself, I still found myself rapt and enthralled in its meticulous curation and staging. Branagh’s work as a director rarely disappoints, and though Murder on the Orient Express is not a perfect film, it plays to his strengths in a manner similar to his Disney adaptation, Cinderella, and represents not nearly as middling an effort as his limp Tom Clancy reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Some viewers may find the film a bit slow, but it plays exactly as one should expect. It is an Agatha Christie story, after all, which are not necessarily known for their brisk pacing and overtures of action-oriented storytelling. There are moments where Branagh injects a showy crane shot or a spectacular train wreck punched up with heavy doses of CGI, but for the most part the film stays true to form, methodically structured and paced with the sense of Christie’s mastery of the classical detective story.

All of this is to say that I really loved this film, and I recommend it to anyone who needs something a little more old-fashioned in their big budget holiday release schedule.

4 out of 5 stars

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