Overview: A passenger is murdered on board the Orient Express; everyone is a suspect, and only Hercule Poirot can crack the case. 20th Century Fox; 2017; Rated PG-13; 114 minutes.
Whenever a treasured property is remade, regardless of language change, casting difference, or money spent, there is usually a common question. Why? More specifically, why now? It is likely that those same questions hang over Kenneth Branagh’s updated version of Murder on the Orient Express. This particular story, well known to some and recognized by practically everyone, has been produced many times, on film and television alike. The remake question may be even more applicable here, in the Whodunit. Isn’t the pleasure of such a story in the unveiling of the killers and accomplices? This is a challenge when remaking a murder mystery. It must be exciting, but it must also hold the attention of those of us who can see it coming.
Balance is All: To accomplish this, the film must have a hero to root for, one that is the smartest person in the room and has the charm to carry that off without excessive arrogance. Enter Hercule Poirot, played by director Kenneth Branagh. His version of the detective is wonderfully his own, and, as Branagh is wont to do, takes center stage. His desire for things to fit just so and his painfully rigid sense of right and wrong is endearing and played with a generous sparkle. It is unfortunate that a strange focus on Poirot’s past love continues to draw attention away from the joy of this performance. Most of the rest of the cast is capable at the least, the high points being Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench. In both cases, these are roles that these actresses could likely play blindfolded, but that does not negate the enjoyment derived from them. Pfeiffer, in particular, exudes sex appeal and delights in making the men on screen uncomfortable, a rarity given the time period in which the film is set. The only weak performance comes from Daisy Ridley, who is miscast in this period piece. She seems lost in a role that demands restraint and control. Unfortunately for her, the majority of her scenes are shared with Branagh, who acts circles around her. This actually helps Poirot appear clever, but the moments stand out nonetheless.
Questionable Choices: Branagh’s detective is indeed a joy to behold; his direction unfortunately is not. Shots of suspects through windows creating reflections, that people are not as they seem, would be an effective ploy, if it were not so overused. Still other directorial choices, such as a bird’s eye view early in the film, make little sense and accomplish nothing except an uncomfortable viewing experience. Additionally, a decision to introduce Poirot on an unconnected case is questionable. This James Bond-esque opening wastes precious time that could be built discussing the actual case on display. Branagh does do a wonderful job with pacing and energy, no small task when the majority of the film is focused on people trapped in an iron box. This makes it all the more frustrating when he consistently makes the decision to move the parties off of the train whenever possible. Gone is the claustrophobic terror of the final scene of Agatha Christie’s novel. Instead, the climax is outdoors in the snow, in one of the most awkwardly staged scenes in recent memory.
Fun To Be Had: Poirot’s unraveling of this grand mystery, as well as his personal unraveling, is wonderful to behold. The excitement of the case, once he finally accepts it, sweeps the audience along at a breakneck pace. This pace fools many into thinking that there is not much to be learned from this adventure. But in the final moments, there is a true moral conundrum for Poirot, and for all of the spectators. Murder on the Orient Express, although on its surface is simply a pleasurable mystery to be solved, also asks some quite difficult questions about right and wrong, and whether exceptions to these actually exist. Luckily, most of these questions are placed on the shoulders of the film’s most capable actor and he revels in the difficult material.
Overall: Despite uneven direction from Branagh, he, as an actor, helps carry a solid cast to an enjoyable mystery. Murder on the Orient Express, is an energetic, satisfying addition to the many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work.