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Friday, November 10, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is a lavish and old fashioned murder mystery that's been spruced up with the kind of budget that's usually reserved for superheroes these days in Hollywood.  It features some lovely images, an all-star cast, and Branagh himself in the lead role as a Belgian detective who is trapped on a train full of suspects, a dead body, and a lot of questions that need answering.  That's about as deep as this movie gets, and it can be fun if you're in the right mood.

The cast of suspects include the likes of Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Daisy Ridley.  All of them seem innocent enough at first (Well, maybe not Depp, who is playing a weirdo scoundrel as usual.), but as we discover, looks can be deceiving.  These actors are having a great time chewing the scenery, casting suspicion upon themselves, and trying to convince the detective investigating the case that they are innocent of the crime at hand.  Said detective is Hercule Poirot, who is played by Branagh as a brilliant man with some OCD issues and a glorious mustache that practically steals the show.  His Poirot is obsessed with finding imperfections in the world, and making things right.  If one of his shoes accidentally steps in a pile of manure on the street, well, he just has to step his other shoe in it in order for there to be balance.

His ability to observe the tiniest details and imperfections in solving a crime is shown brilliantly in the film's opening sequence, where Hercule stands before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and helps solve a theft in front of a crowd that's on the verge of rioting.  Afterward, he winds up on the Orient Express after a chance encounter with an old friend, and a promise of a much-needed rest.  The other guests on the train include a slinky widow (Pfeiffer), a governess (Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a suspicious art dealer (Depp), who brings along his valet (Derek Jacobi) and bookkeeper (Gad), a princess (Dench) and her maid (Olivia Coleman), a German Professor (Willem Dafoe), a religious zealot (Cruz), a dancer (Sergei Polunin) and his wife (Lucy Boynton), and finally a Count (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).  When someone turns up dead on the train from multiple stab wounds, it's up to Poirot to find the person or persons responsible, and it's up to us in the audience to try to keep everybody and their stories straight.

If there is a problem with Murder on the Orient Express, it's that even at two hours, the movie does feel a bit rushed.  On one hand, it's certainly well paced and never seems to sag or slow down.  On the other, because of it's fast paced, many of the talented cast except for Branagh get kind of left behind.  Some do stand out.  Pfeiffer seems to be having a blast strutting about the hallways and flirting with everyone she comes in contact with, while Gad shows some very strong dramatic acting in a few key scenes involving his character. (I'm forced to be vague, to avoid spoilers.) And while Depp is clearly hamming it up in his role as a sleaze, he does seem a bit more restrained than usual, and is delivering an actual performance, not just hiding behind make up and a silly voice.  But if the movie belongs to anyone, it's Branagh, whose performance veers from self-parody to all out seriousness when the need arises.  While it may not be a classic interpretation of Poirot (many actors have played him on the screen and on TV in the past), he at least manages to stand alongside the other actors who have tackled the character.

I also admired the way that as a director, Branagh tries to avoid making things too claustrophobic.  Since the majority of the film is spent on a train and its various cars and personal cabins, he does manage to find some interesting camera angles and even set a few scenes outdoors that obviously did not happen in the book, but have been added to increase the visual stimuli.  When the train becomes stuck in an avalanche of snow, he stages a few scenes outside and even upon the roof of the train, with some scenic backdrops and wide tracking shots.  Even within the confines of the train itself, however, he is able to hold our attention with his shots and angles.  This is something I wondered how he would handle when I was walking in, and I am glad to say that he manages to keep things interesting visually, while not going so far as to be distracting.

There are moments where the movie feels like it hails from a different age of filmmaking.  There is CG, but it is used sparingly thank goodness, and the way that the characters and the actors' portrayals are mannered do seem to come from some old black and white who done it.  There is melodrama a plenty, especially as the truth is eventually revealed.  Pfeiffer, in particular, seems to relish some of her scenes with the same intensity as if she were acting on a soap opera.  And yet, this kind of acting works in a movie like this.  The actors are supposed to be a bit off, and throw suspicion upon themselves.  They're supposed to be a bit odd, and maybe act like they're guarding secrets.  In that case, the talented cast does their job.  Do I wish there was more to some of these characters, and that Branagh had afforded them as much attention as he clearly did his portrayal of Poirot?  No doubt.  But at the very least, everybody is making the most of what they have.

I wonder how Murder on the Orient Express will do with today's fast-paced audiences.  While the movie is brisk, some who are used to the quick edits of today's blockbusters might complain.  I don't know the size of the audience this will attract, but at the same time, I'm glad that a major studio figured there would be enough of one to gamble on a movie like this.  It's been a long time since we've seen a classically styled murder mystery on the big screen, and while this isn't a great one, it's more than enough.

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