Theatrical release poster
by Peter J. O'Connell
Murder on the Orient Express. Released: Nov. 2017. Runtime: 114 mins. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.
Sidney Lumet's 1974 film version of Agatha Christie's classic 1934 mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express proved both a popular and a critical success and touched off somewhat of a Christie boom. A number of theatrical and TV films based on her stories and characters, and even her life, followed over the next 20 years or so.
Now Kenneth Branagh directs and co-produces a new version of Murder, with himself as the lead character, Hercule Poirot, the “world's greatest detective,” as the Belgian styles himself. There's a problem with this new version, however—there's not much new about it, and what is new mostly isn't an improvement on the 1974 version.
An example of the new but not improved material is the grossly overproduced, and irrelevant, opening sequence set in Jerusalem. Other examples are some of the choices that Branagh has made in how scenes are shot. The most blatant example of a bad choice in this regard is the filming from overhead of a key scene involving Johnny Depp's character. And no review can fail to note that one of the new things that is quite annoying is the addition of a new character of sorts: Mr. Mustache. Yes, Branagh has given Poirot a mustache that is so grotesquely large and shaped that it almost becomes a character itself in the movie—another passenger on the train. At least, one can't help fixing eyes on it during the many closeups that Branagh gives himself.
Something new that would be welcome in this version of Murder would be a twist on the story's “surprise ending,” which is actually rather well-known and hence no surprise to many moviegoers. But we don't get any such imaginative approach from screenwriter Michael Green. Nor do we get much approximating stellar performances from Murder's all-star (sort of) cast.
Johnny Depp as a shady art dealer with plenty of enemies is probably the best in the cast, but that's largely because most of the other actors are given little distinctive to do. When the Depp character is murdered while the Express is marooned in the mountains by a snow avalanche, the other characters are suspects. The main ones are the Depp character's henchmen (Derek Jacobi and Josh Gad); a morose missionary (Penelope Cruz); a white supremacist (Willem Dafoe); a Russian noblewoman (Judi Dench); an African-American doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.); the doctor's clandestine lover, a governess (Daisy Ridley); and a femme fatale type (Michelle Pfeiffer). The point of such a cast is for each of them to have their characters make a strong individual impression but to do so economically. (As Ingrid Bergman did in the 1974 version, for which she received an Oscar.) The current cast—under this director—doesn't.
Murder's exterior shots can be impressive. It is filmed in 65mm and beautiful color, with a mix of actual scenery, traditional special effects, and computer-generated imagery. But both the costuming and the production design of the interiors fail to convey a strong sense of period or the luxurious experience of traveling on the fabled train.
Be that as it may, the final scene of Murder is clearly setting up for a sequel. And it has been reported that a biopic of Agatha Christie is in the works, to star either Emma Stone or Alicia Vikander.