I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.
I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993). But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why. His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.
Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot. It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.
In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie. The cast is superb.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime. His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.
And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.
As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag. The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me. There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going. It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up. It’s all rather listless.
It certainly looks good. The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive. But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things. This film just never gets going.
But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot. Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot. And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.
Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film. I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character. He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.
I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good. We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.
Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett. While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.
Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot. Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.
Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel. It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery. There is a murder, and Poirot investigates. This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.
There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes. For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true. It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.
Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017). Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.
Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new. I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.
I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay. It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.