Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Review
In the realm of dubious mysteries, complexed murders, and secretive suspects, none has been more profound, prolithic, and famous than of the iconic Murder on the Orient Express. Considered to be “the” classic murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express was written by author Agatha Christie back in 1934 and followed the detective work of Hercule Poirot as he uncovers a murder suspect on-board a luxury train. The novel has become a classic in the literary world (one of the most famous books that Christie has ever written) and is still currently in publication across the world and translated into several different languages. While the book’s fame grew, Hollywood did approach this iconic mystery to be adapted as a feature film with the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express, which was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred the likes of Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, and Vanesa Redgraves. Much like Christie’s book, Lumet’s 1974 film was a commercial and critical success, with the movie being nominated for six categories at the 47th Academy Awards, with actress Ingrid Bergman winning for her performance in the Best Supporting Actress category. While there’s been two other adaptations (a 2001 TV movie of the same name and 2010 TV episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot) as well as a plethora of pop culture parodies on various media outlets, it’s been regarded that Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express to be the definitive theatrical adaptation version of Christie’s famous novel. Now, 83 years since the book was released and 33 years since Lumet’s 1974 film debut, 20th Century Fox and actor / director Kenneth Branagh present the newest iteration of Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery with the 2017 remake film Murder on the Orient Express. Does this new iteration of the iconic murder mystery find its place with today’s moviegoers or does it fail to match what’s come before it?
After solving a case in Jerusalem, world-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is looking forward to a long and deserved holiday vacation. Arriving in Istanbul, Poirot’s vacation is short-lived as he’s been summoned to London, where another case demands his attention. Aided by his good friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), the current operational manager of the Orient Express train, Poirot is offered a seat on-board the luxury locomotive so he can make the reach his destination posthaste. Once on the train, Poirot becomes acquainted with some of his fellow passengers, including governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), criminal businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), Ratchett’s alcohol assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), widow socialite Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), and the elderly Princess Dragomiroff, among others. Initially, the scheduled three-day trip is uneventful, but one night, after the train gets derailed during a sudden snow avalanche, Poirot discovers that one of the passengers has been murdered. With the train stalled and waiting for help to arrive, Poirot is called upon his super sleuth prowess and keen observation in deducing who the murder might be; questioning the secretive Orient Express passengers one by one. However, the plot thickens as his investigation continues, casting a shadowy light on a previous big-time murder case, which is tied to the death on the Orient Express.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I’ll admit that I do know of the Murder on the Orient Express, both from working in a bookstore and of its iconic popularity within pop culture outlets. However, I’ve never read Christie’s book nor seeing the various adaptations. That was until recently. Naturally, when I heard the news that there was going to be a newer adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, with a star-studded cast, I was definitely intrigued to see this movie. This was further confirmed when the studio released the movie trailers for the film, which prompted me to try and either read the book or watch the famous 1974 original film. Unfortunately, I was unable to read the book or watch the movie before seeing the new 2017 version. However, immediately after seeing Branagh’s version, I searched on-line and found (and watched) Lumet’s 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. So, yes…I’ve seeing both the original film and this new remake of it. So, what did I think of Branagh’s version? Well, to tell you the truth, I liked it. While Lumet’s 1974 version is great, well-acted, and iconic in its own right, Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express is a classy “old-school” murder mystery that, despite problematic familiarity, succeeds in capturing a riveting “whodunit” tale, thanks Branagh’s crystal clear vision of Christie’s murder mystery story. Also, since I never read the book or seeing the Lumet’s 1974 movie prior to watching Branagh’s 2017 film, I was quite entertaining on how the narrative of the Murder on the Orient Express all came together, finding Branagh’s version to be my entry point to Agatha Christie tale.
Helming Murder on the Orient Express is British actor / director Kenneth Branagh, whose previous directorial projects include Hamlet, Henry V, Thor, Cinderella, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Being a somewhat “old-school” seasoned actor (in both stage theatrics and in feature films), Branagh is the best candidate in bring the classic Agatha Christie story underneath a cinematic light for modern viewers to enjoy. In that regard, this 2017 Orient Express feature has a great sense of those classic old-school murder mystery films from a bygone age of filmmaking. Its classy, riveting, and kind of a breath of fresh air in comparison to the recent “page-to-screen” mystery film adaptations (i.e. Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Snowman, etc.), which offer a more contemporary tone of what is consider a murder mystery. Branagh knows that and imbues that knowledge when directing Orient Express, keeping the film more about the mystery (i.e. the motive and investigation process) rather than explicit content and flashy sequences of violence. Additionally, the film’s screenplay, which was penned by Michael Green, keeps the movie’s story focused and on point with what many would expect from Christie’s beloved murder mystery, while Branagh keeps the movie a steady pace from onset to conclusion (the film’s runtime is one hour and fifty-three minutes long). In short, Branagh’s Orient Express is a “throwback” iteration of a classic “whodunit” movie and that’s a really good thing to enjoy!
In terms of filmmaking presentation and other technical nuances, Orient Express excels beautifully and just looks simply stunning on the big screen. Given the primary narrative setting of the story (i.e. the small confines spaces within the train), Orient Express could’ve been more of a stage play, but Branagh offers a very cinematic approach, showcasing other areas in and around the Orient Express train itself (as a train lover, I do love how the steam engine looks). This is thanks to the detailed production designs from Jim Clay, the striking cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos and the usage of CGI effects (to utilize several certain backdrop scenes) as Branagh’s 2017 Orient Express unequivocally captures the look and feel of Christie’s story and the specific time period / setting of which the tale takes place in. Additionally, the film’s score, which was composed by Patrick Doyle, offers up some sweet and dramatic melodies throughout the feature, adding to the film’s overall cinematic appeal and narrative mood. All in all, whether or not you ultimately liked Branagh’s Orient Express, you simply can’t deny how beautiful and gorgeous the film looks and feels.
Perhaps the biggest flaws that Orient Express can’t overcome is the familiarity of its source material. Despite those select few who don’t know the story of Murder on the Orient Express (myself included), mostly everyone has read the book or seeing several of the book’s cinematic adaptations on both the big and / or small screen. As I said, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is “the” most famous and popular murder mystery tale out there and Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film capture the essence of the book and was widely accepted as classic in filmmaking. So, creating a remake murder mystery movie (from Christie’s book and / or Lumet’s film) is inherently met with scrupulous criticism and that’s real crux of this new movie. Branagh’s vision of the Orient Express, while stylish and well-handled, is pretty much what you would expect from the iconic tale of duplicity and murder of a classic “whodunit”. What I mean is that the movie itself really doesn’t bring anything new (narrative-wise) to the table, which makes the overall familiarity of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express the same as previous iterations from start to finish. If you’re familiar with the book or seeing the 1974 film, Branagh’s 2017 film really doesn’t deviate from the projected path of its source material. That being said, it really did bother me as much as I didn’t watch Lumet’s 1974 film until after seeing Branagh’s 2017 version. Thus, I really didn’t know what to expect from either the movie comparison and / or Christie’s novel source material. Additionally, as one can imagine, Orient Express is a classic murder mystery tale and that means it’s a slow-burner, finding the character of Poirot engaging in lengthy conversations in investigating all the train’s passengers in order to deduce the identity of the killer. So, don’t expect a more fast-paced / contemporary representation (i.e. flashy action scenes, sexual content, bloody violence etc.) within Branagh’s version. If do, you’ll be disappointed. Personally, I really didn’t expect that in this movie and (if I’m being honest) I quite enjoy watching a more “old-school” murder mystery.
In addition to his diligent work behind the camera in envisioning his interpretation of the classic murder mystery, Branagh also shines (brilliantly) in front of the camera as the film’s lead character of Hercule Poirot. Best known for his acting roles in Henry V, Hamlet, and Wallander, Branagh is the real true star of the feature, despite the all-star cast that’s behind, playing his rendition of Poirot in a believable / theatrical manner that only a talented “classically trained” thespian such as Branagh could perform. As a whole, Branagh is also responsible for the some of the more light-hearted comedic beats throughout the feature as well as handful of its more dramatic moments as well; both of which he handles masterfully. Branagh’s performance is indeed a strong one and immediately standout as soon as he appears on-screen (the film’s opening scene is a great introduction to the character) and Branagh seems to be a fun / grand time in playing the role, playing up the character’s super sleuth demeanor as well as his humorous quirks and quick remarks. All in all, Branagh is an absolute perfect fit for playing detective Hercule Poirot; personally, hoping that this movie will catapult the idea of having return as the seasoned detective in possible future murder mystery feature films. As a side-note, I do have to mention that mustache that he wears. It’s goofy, funny, and definitely fits the character of Branagh’s Poirot.
Beyond Branagh’s performance as the main lead of the feature, there are a few supporting characters that do get to shine a bit more prominently than the rest of them. This includes seasoned character actor Johnny Depp (Black Mass and the Pirates of the Caribbean films) as the American “businessman” Samuel Ratchett, seasoned actress Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns and Scarface) as the divorce widow Caroline Hubbard, actor Josh Gad (Frozen and The Wedding Ringer) as Ratchett’s alcohol assistant Hector MacQueen, seasoned actor Derek Jacobi (Gladiator and Henry V) as Ratchett’s long-suffering valet Edward Henry Masterman, and actress Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as the secretive governess Mary Debenham. As stated, these characters have a bit more material to work with in comparison to their other supporting co-stars and offer up some solid performances, especially from Pfeiffer and Gad in their respective roles. Also, although not really a major player (in the grand scheme of the narrative), actor Tom Bateman (Da Vinci’s Demons and Snatched) gets a lot of screen-time as the side-character of Bouc, the director / management of the Orient Express train service, which is mostly due to his character relationship to Poirot.
The rest of the supporting cast are, as a whole, are less developed and are delegated to filling in the background as the rest of the passengers / workers aboard the Orient Express train. This includes Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench (Casino Royale and Victoria and Abdul) as the stuffy elderly Princess Dragomiroff, actress Olivia Colman (Locke and The Lobster) as the princess’s obedient servant / maid Hildegarde Schmidt, actor William Dafoe (Spider-Man and The Grand Budapest Hotel) as the racist Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman, actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (The Magnificent Seven and Cake) as the Latin-American automobile businessman Biniamino Marquez, actress Penélope Cruz (Volver and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) as the religious missionary Pilar Estravados, actor Leslie Odom Jr. (Smash and Red Tails) as the secretive doctor Dr. Arbuthnot, actor Marwan Kenzari (The Mummy and The Promise) as the train’s conductor Pierre Michel, and stage theater dancer Sergei Polunin (Peter and the Wolf and Red Sparrow) and actress Lucy Boynton (Rebel in the Rye and Sing Street) as the secretive Count Rudolph Andrenyi, and Countess Elena Andrenyi. These characters, while performed solid by the actor / actress who’s playing them, only get a few scenes here and there and are, more or less, plot device to add a suspicious layer to Poirot’s roster of suspects of who committed the murder. However, again I have to say, that this isn’t as much on Branagh’s fault nor Green, as the staggering amount of side characters from Christie’s source material and the time allotted within a feature film are at odds as it would be somewhat impossible for every supporting character to get their “big moment” within the confines of a few minutes shy of two hours. This was also a problem I found with Lumet’s version as well. Thus, I kind of expected this to happen and it really didn’t bother me as much, but it might for some.
Famed actor / director Kenneth Branagh steps into the shoes of super sleuth detective Hercule Poirot in the movie Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh newest film project sets to recapture the essence of Agatha Christie’s beloved murder mystery novel by for a new generation of moviegoers through the usage of modern-day filmmaking mechanics and nuances. While the narrative itself is still the same (nothing new or drastically different from past iterations) and the problematic juggling of all the supporting characters, the film itself is cinematically gorgeous, beautifully crafted, and definitely well-acted from its star-studded cast, especially on Branagh’s portrayal of his rendition of the meticulous detective. Personally, I liked it. Branagh was excellent in both in front of the camera and behind, creating a fun and engaging feature to the iconic murder mystery tale. Also, while I haven’t seeing the two other adaptations Christie’s famous novel, I do have to say that I actually prefer the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express versus the 1974. Thus, I would say that this movie gets my recommend stamp of approval. If you’re a fan of Christie’s novel and / or “old-school” murder mysteries, then you should definitely this newest interpretation of a classic “whodunit”. All in all, with the barrage of remakes, reboots, and reimagines continuing to be churned about Hollywood every year, Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express stand towards the top of that heap and, while it will be debated on which adaptation is the definitive version of Agatha Christie’s famous book, you can’t just help yourself in appreciating Branagh’s classy and old-school vision of “the” classic murder mystery tale.
4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: November 10th, 2017
Reviewed On: November 11th, 2017
Murder on the Orient Express is 113 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements