Sunday, November 12, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Characters are together in a confined space. They don't know each other. A murder occurs. Who did it and what does it mean? No, I'm not describing a new entry in the Saw franchise but rather Kenneth Branagh's new film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Famous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh having a great time) is last-minute addition to the passenger list for a journey across Europe when a murder and an avalanche throw the travelers into confusion. Poirot's fellow passengers include an unpleasant art dealer (Johnny Depp in an out-of-tune performance), a governess (Daisy Ridley), and a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in search of a husband. Poirot is prevailed upon to solve the case, and what else is a detective to do? The film is essentially a series of confrontations, with Poirot questioning the passengers and slowly finding out that their connections to the murder victim are more complex than they first appeared. Each scene reveals a new layer to the mystery, though the identity of two passengers traveling on diplomatic visas (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) gets buried under a layer of too-fast exposition. Branagh is winningly haughty and vain as Poirot and I could have watched more of him fussing over the shape of his breakfast egg, but he is also an actor capable of projecting great intelligence and in Poirot's interactions with the passengers there's little doubt that he will come out ahead. I wish that Branagh, working from a script by Michael Green, could have found a way to better integrate a large amount of exposition into the main story. Changing the structure of the plot might offend Christie purists, but much depends on things that occurred before the train journey starts and spending some time outside the train would have avoided several scenes that function as information dumps. It also would have meant that actors like Derek Jacobi and Penelope Cruz would have had a bit more to do, and the film would have felt less like an echo chamber for Branagh's performance.

Other than Depp's, the one performance that didn't work for me was Leslie Odom, Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. I think Branagh and Green are actually combining two characters here, but in any case while of course there's nothing wrong with changing the race of a character the film then goes out of its way to call attention to Arbuthnot's race for plot purposes. That isn't Odom's fault, but he's not convincing as a British person or as someone involved in a romance that turns into a late revelation. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, or Judi Dench. Branagh wants this story to ask questions about the nature of justice, but in a film so constructed around one star performance the moral issues don't resonate. Murder on the Orient Express is an adequate Sunday afternoon diversion but it is overstuffed and - even running under two hours - a little clunky. A talented cast can't quite save this from feeling like a film that didn't really need to exist. Kenneth Branagh's next case shouldn't be quite so cold.

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