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Dan's Review: "Murder on the Orient Express" a classic cinematic throwback

Nov 13, 2017 12:14AM ● Published by Dan Metcalf

Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express - © 2017 20th Century Fox.

Murder on the Orient Express (20th Century Fox)

Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison.

Written by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

GRADE: B+

REVIEW:

I’ve never been a huge fan of Agatha Christie. Yes, she creates unique characters and can twist a plot like no one’s business.  Apart from all those eccentric characters and deep mysteries, there is a lot of conjecture, convenient outcomes, coincidental dominoes and improbable backstories prerequisite to her tales of murder and crime solving. Hers is a romanticizing of murder; an escapism of sorts that relegates what is usually a crime of passion into a vast conspiracy.  Despite my issues with Agatha, Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps he most unique murder mystery, taking the “whodunit”  to realms beyond your basic forensic puzzle (no spoilers, I promise).

Kenneth Branagh directs the new film in which he also stars as master detective Hercule Poirot. Here’s the basic plot: Poirot catches a ride on the Orient Express along with several characters from all walks of life: a pious missionary (Penelope Cruz), a princess (Judi Dench) accompanied by her assistant (Olivia Colman), a socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer), a governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a gangster (Johnny Depp) accompanied by his assistant (Josh Gad) and hired valet (Derek Jacobi), a car dealer (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a count and countess (Sergei Polunin, and Miranda Raison) and an Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe). There are a few other peripheral players around, like waiters, a train conductor and Poirot’s sidekick Buoc (Tom Bateman). Shortly after leaving Istanbul, one of those characters is found murdered in his sleeper cabin, stabbed several times, and few clues available. As luck would have it, the world’s greatest detective happens to be on board, and Poirot commences his investigation, leading him to numerous red herrings and revelations about the victim and his potential murderer (or murderers).  In the end, Poirot lives up to his billing and the culprit (or culprits) are discovered. The issuance of justice is less tidy, leaving a contemplative conclusion.

Murder on the Orient Express is crammed with style; a throwback to classic cinema with plenty of star power from a strong and talented cast. Of course, Branagh saves all the best bits for himself, positioning his character as a crime-solving demigod without rival in wit or personality. Being director (also producer) has its perks, to be sure. All hubris aside, Branagh’s characterization is appealing and likeable, despite his quirks.

Again, the only flaw with Murder on the Orient Express lies with Ms. Christie and her penchant for convoluting elements of "passion" crimes with reality. There are too many dominoes needed to make the story work. The mark of a good mystery is its ability to mesh extreme circumstances with a plausible reality. As such, Murder on the Orient Express is an adequate vehicle for a little escapism, but if you’re looking for a movie that challenges your brain, it’s less clever than it seems.


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