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Murder On The Orient Express – Review


Release Date: 10 November 2017 [USA]
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Michael Green [Screenplay] - Agatha Christie [Novel]
Cast: Kenneth Branagh - Penélope Cruz - Willem Dafoe



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Posted December 3, 2017 by

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Murder On The Orient Express Review:

It has been a while since we saw an Agatha Christie adaptation on the big screen but who better to bring beloved, eccentric detective Hercule Poirot to the screen than Kenneth Branagh.

Based on Agatha Christie’s most popular murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express finds famed detective Hercule Poirot on the beautiful Orient Express train, amongst a group of seemingly ordinary people. When an avalanche derails the train, the passengers become antsy but it is soon discovered that the derailment is the least of their problems – a murder has taken place on board the train.

Poirot has no choice but to investigate the affair but something doesn’t fit about the murder. With an overabundance of confusing clues and a supposed link to a long-closed case, the famed detective finds himself flummoxed for the first time in his life. Can he find the guilty party when everyone is suspect?

muder on the orient express review kenneth brannagh

Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is the second big screen adaptation of the book since the 1974 adaptation starring Albert Finney as Poirot. In 2001, Alfred Molina starred in a poorly-received made-for-TV adaptation of the same book. David Suchet’s Poirot TV series also adapted the story in 2010 to much acclaim.

The first thing that struck me while watching Murder on the Orient Express is that it is a beautiful film. Director of photography Haris Zambarloukos has done a wonderful job in bringing Christie’s vision to the big screen. The cinematography is gorgeous; we have vast, sweeping panoramas of the European landscape juxtaposed with tighter, close shots inside the train.

Zambarloukos definitely had his work cut out for him here – Branagh’s directing is inventive at times. There are a number of long scenes shot without a single visible edit. Poirot boarding the train and walking to his carriage, all the while meeting his co-passengers, is shot in one long take (or a seamlessly edited series of shots). Later, on discovering the murder, Poirot and his friend, Bouc, discuss their next steps. The conversation takes place across three compartments in the train with the camera at an extreme top angle. I have no idea how many takes were needed for shots like these but the final result is marvellous cinema to watch.

Murder on the Orient Express’s numerous characters make it ripe for an all-star cast. The 1974 adaptation featured cinematic powerhouses of the time including Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave and Michael York, among others.

Judi Dench in Murder on the Orient Express

The 2017 film has a mix of established cinematic greats with a number of up and comers thrown in for good measure. Alongside Branagh as Poirot, Dame Judi Dench plays the grouchy but elusive Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz is the missionary Pilar Estravados, previously played by Bergman; Willem Dafoe plays the shifty Professor Gerhard Hardman. The nefarious Ratchett is played by Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer plays heiress Caroline Hubbard. The rest of the cast includes UK star Olivia Colman, Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Daisy Ridley, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr and Beauty and the Beast’s Josh Gad. This is a star cast of the highest quality but the acting is sometimes not up to scratch.

Johnny Depp’s performance is hammy at best, and considering his recent fall from grace following domestic abuse allegations, it seems particularly odd that the producers didn’t replace him. It is uncomfortable to watch him, to say the least.

Daisy Ridley does a passable job but her curtailed screen-time makes her dialogue delivery seem clipped. It doesn’t help that she and Leslie Odom Jr. have little chemistry, despite them sharing a bulk of their screen time together. Ridley and Branagh, on the other hand, looked more comfortable in their scenes together; perhaps because, as director, Branagh spent more time with each actor?

Speaking of Branagh, his Poirot is paradoxical – measured yet emotional. He rocks the moustache, which is definitely as impressive as the books proclaim, and his accent doesn’t slip even once. But, his version seems to be a new take on David Suchet’s Poirot instead of being a new interpretation of the character from the book, which is what one would expect from a reboot. It is only at the very end, during a more emotional moment, that Branagh’s composure slips – faced with a moral conundrum, his Poirot becomes a Shakespearean protagonist playing his part on the world’s stage. Branagh’s triumph, though, is that he seems to have embodied the character much longer than just one film which makes him a joy to watch.

Among the cast, Josh Gad is a surprising stand-out. His role as Ratchett’s accountant could very easily have been forgotten but he imbues the character with a great deal of pathos, giving him a complete and believable backstory. Gad may have made a career as a funny man but he is going places.

With so many actors and characters, one can’t help but feel that someone will get short-changed, and Penélope Cruz is the one to lose out in this film. She is brilliant in the few scenes she has but it would have been great to see more of her. Dame Judi Dench is expectedly brilliant but again, more of her would have been wonderful.

murder on the orient express 2017 with Michelle Pfeiffer

Michelle Pfeiffer, who we have not seen much of lately, is amazing throughout. Her Caroline Hubbard is charming, witty, scared and obnoxious. She is fascinating to watch and makes me wonder why Hollywood still hasn’t shed its prejudice against older female actors.

I was pleased to see that Branagh had tried to diversify the cast but it is still overwhelmingly white; a couple more people of colour might have made this film more appealing to wider audiences.

Murder on the Orient Express stood out as one of Christie’s greatest stories because the story was so different from others she had written and because the climactic revelation is so unexpected. For those reading Christie’s work at the time, the ending came as a shock. It also helped to build Poirot’s character. Poirot had always had clear ideas of good and evil but here was a situation where the two were entangled. What was the right course of action for him when a criminal act was no longer black and white? It is a brilliant character study, if you already know the character, but does it work for someone coming into this story for the first time?

This new film is targeted at a millennial audience but how many of them know Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot? For those of us familiar with the story and past adaptations, seeing the story unfold anew onscreen is a treat but for anyone unfamiliar with it, the story would be shocking and exhilarating.

This is where, surprisingly, Branagh fails in his directing. The major plot twist about the old case is dealt with in such a ham-fisted way that it loses its element of surprise. Branagh introduces this important element much too abruptly, not giving the audience time to adjust to the facts.

Muder on the Orient Express 2017 cast

The climax, though beautifully shot, with the suspects placed at a table in an interpretation of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, doesn’t come across as a natural conclusion. The audience are left wondering how Poirot figured out everything because the clues were not presented to the audience, only to the character in the film. It doesn’t make sense and that is not the takeaway you want from a film and story such as this.

Despite being a beautiful and immersive film, Murder on the Orient Express fails its storytelling in basic ways, leaving the audience to surmise too much on their own. In addition, a few highlight performances by the cast are let down by poor performances by supporting cast members.

This should have been an astonishing film but there are too many little imperfections getting in its way. However, this film is a beautiful homage to Christie’s greatest work and Branagh makes for a solid Hercule Poirot. We can only hope he learns from the errors in this film to improve upon before Death on the Nile is shot.


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Louis Skye
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