Thursday, 16 November 2017
Review: Murder On The Orient Express (UK Cert 12A)
One of Agatha Christie's best known and best-loved novels, Murder On The Orient Express was first published in 1934. Forty years later, an all-star cast brought the story to life. Now, 43 years later, another all-star cast assemble to tell a new version of the story, with Kenneth Branagh pulling double-duty as director and as the famous Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot.
After solving a case in Jerusalem, Poirot is asked to return to London and asks his friend, Monsieur Bouc, to find him a berth on the Orient Express. There's one place available which Poirot takes. Whilst on the journey, he is approached by Samuel Ratchett, an American businessman, who asks Poirot for protection as he has been receiving death threats. Poirot turns the offer down. That night, the train gets stuck during an avalanche whilst travelling through Yugoslavia. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead. Stabbed to death multiple times. With many suspects and only a short amount of time before the avalanche is cleared and the Yugoslav authorities get involved, Poirot must follow the clues and find out who wanted Ratchett dead- and who struck the fatal blows.
This is going to sound like a very backhanded compliment but I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable I found this new version of Murder On The Orient Express. I had my doubts that this would be just a pale imitation of Lumet's star-studded 1974 film (and comparisons are inevitable). This film beats its own path- sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Branagh's Poirot is a very different one than any seen before; he doesn't try and ape Ustinov or Finney or Suchet. Poirot's famed fastidiousness is played up here (expecting exactly the same sized eggs at breakfast or asking people to straighten their ties) but he provides a thoughtful and occasionally funny performance. Sadly though, the massive walrus moustache is a misstep. It's a little distracting.
The rest of the cast are also very strong. Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent as the flighty and flirty Mrs Hubbard, whilst Derek Jacobi provides a strong supporting turn as Ratchett's butler Mr Masterman. Daisy Ridley is great as former governess Mary Debenham and there's an interesting casting choice with Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr (not Colonel) Arbuthnot. Despite a slightly strange English accent, he's pretty good- and it also shows some of the period's attitude to race (which adds an extra dimension). Penelope Cruz is good as missionary Pilar Estravados (changed from Greta Ohlsson), whilst Josh Gad adds a fine turn as Ratchett's secretary McQueen. Johnny Depp is oleaginous and unpleasant as Ratchett- so does his job well of getting the audience to hate him before he's offed. Willem Dafoe is also good as Gerhard Hardman, a stuffy Austrian professor.
Several of the characters are not sketched out as well, which is a shame- Judi Dench hasn't got much to do as the aged Princess Dragomiroff (but what she does, she does well; hell, she's Judi Dench- she could make a takeaway menu sound like Keats). Similarly, the brilliant Olivia Colman doesn't get a lot as the Princess' dour ladies-maid. The Count and Countess Andrenyi (played by ballet dancer Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton respectively) barely feature, although both are strong when they do appear. There's also been some jiggery-pokery with some other minor characters, like the car salesman (who now goes by the name of Marquez).
This is a handsome-looking film. The production design, the costumes, and the cinematography are all to be commended. There are some lovely long sweeping takes of the train as it travels through the countryside and there's some interesting shots which follow characters walking through the coach. There's an over-reliance on a few types of shot (they seem keen on showing people reflected through glass) and some intriguing decisions made on some shots (for instance, you don't immediately see Ratchett's body when it's discovered).
There's quite a few bits that have been added which don't really serve much of a purpose except to break up what must have been considered the monotony of people talking in a room. So there's a section where one suspect flees the train to burn some incriminating evidence, another confronts Poirot with a gun; none of it needed and- if anything- for me, it detracted from the film. You've got scintillating actors, a strong story, a pretty good script- you don't need to add these bits in! Not everyone who goes to the cinema has the attention span of a fruit-fly.
The solution to Murder On The Orient Express is one of the best-known in all of crime fiction (pretty much second to 'the butler did it') which can rob the denouement of some of its power. That said, even if you know the solution going in, the performances as Poirot lays out the facts are very strong even though (another baffling decision) it takes place in a railway tunnel.
There was a lot I liked about the film, and a few things I didn't. There was a lot of unnecessary tinkering which was a bit irksome, but the opulent design of the film and several of the performances win over. All said though, it's a pretty decent stab at a thrilling story.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5