Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh


Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in this remake of a 1974 film by the same name.  Like Sidney Lumet’s original, Murder on the Orient Express is big and broad, its characters almost silly in how big they are, and the film mines some of that for comedy… at least at first.

It’s hard to take Murder on the Orient Express seriously, but for the most part the film understands that.  This isn’t a murder mystery like, say, The Night Of or Gone Girl.  Where those stories are grim and very self-serious, establishing a consistent tone, Murder is more of a comedy that becomes increasingly more self-serious and less self-aware.

The premise, of a murder committed on a train that just so happens to be carrying the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), is already kind of silly.  Johnny Depp’s Edward Ratchett is killed early in the film, and the rest of the story plays out like a game of Clue, much as the original did.  We have a single location, a stopped train, and a cast of individuals, any of whom could be the murderer.

It’s an intriguing premise, again just like the original, and it works best as a melodrama, though it soon becomes a soap opera.  Each character gets their ‘moment’ to shine, but these performances become less and less interesting as the film takes itself more and more seriously.

In Sidney Lumet’s original film, the story maintains a certain sense of humor throughout.  That version of Poirot is as intelligent as this one, but he’s also just a very absurd character, with two men following him around, jumping at the possible guilt of each suspect he interviews.  “That must be the killer!” they would say after every single interview, in a way mocking the types of procedurals that have become much more commonplace in movies, television and even podcasts of recent years.  Every character is presented on a platter with the question of guilt hanging over their heads.

This remake begins in much the same way.  Poirot is a silly character with a silly mustache and a rigid worldview (everything must be in balance).  As the story goes on, however, and he struggles with this mystery, the tone of the movie shifts, and suddenly Poirot is less Tintin and more James Bond.

There are only a couple moments of physical action, in which Poirot deftly restrains a suspect, suggesting a physical strength that I can’t picture his character having.  Branagh’s film tries to spice up the original with these set pieces, possibly due to a studio note which suggested the audience might get bored watching one interrogation after another.

And I guess I was a little bored.  Maybe that was because I only recently saw the original and so knew the ending ahead of time, but there was just not much fun in this movie.  We should either care deeply about the murder victim or a suspect or two or we should simply enjoy the investigation, playing the game alongside Branagh’s Poirot.

The problem is that there’s no game to be played because the clues are often not revealed to us until after Poirot has put two and two together.  He’s meant to be the smartest guy in the room, kind of like Sherlock Holmes, so to make this clear, the film just delays any new information so that we couldn’t possibly figure it out until after Poirot.  Instead of investigating the crime alongside him, we’re meant to stare on in awe as he does his thing.

But his ‘thing’ isn’t very fun to watch.  Something like BBC’s Sherlock does a better job of framing an intelligent character, putting us a step behind him and yet finding entertainment in his process.  A show like Better Call Saul does something similar, it makes the ‘process’ fascinating to observe, even before we know where it’s all headed.

Murder on the Orient Express is a beautiful film to watch on the surface, with great cinematography (a constantly floating camera) and music, but there is little substance, which, again, would be okay if these characters were entertaining to watch, as they can be in the first act.

The murder victim, Ratchett, turns out to be the kidnapper of a young girl named Daisy Armstrong.  The original film begins with all of this backstory, telling us through newspaper images about Daisy’s kidnapping, subsequent death and the ways in which her family suffered as a result.  Before the plot begins, we know there is some connection to this kidnapping.  In Branagh’s version, we start with Hercule Poirot succinctly solving an open investigation into the theft of a religious relic.  It feels like a scene straight from Indiana Jones or The Adventures of Tintin, and it exists just to show us how peculiar and hyper-intelligent this man is.  So from the beginning we’re told that this isn’t a story about the grieving process and ramifications of a single tragic event (as in the original) but a story about a single character, Poirot.

I’m not going to pretend I absolutely loved the original.  It was okay and at times a little too convoluted for my taste.  But that film did find some humor in thrusting a character with a strict worldview into a perfect storm that challenged everything he believed.  At the end, after Poirot discovers that everyone had a hand in murdering Ratchett, he remains relatively objective, observing that he will have to live with his decision not to prosecute them but that it’s the right thing to do.  He’s a wild, big and broad character type who’s completely deconstructed, but the emphasis of that movie always seems to be on the grief that bonds the other passengers in the train.

In Branagh’s version, the camera lingers very close to Poirot’s face, soaking in his shock, empathy and the struggle he has trying to fit this story into his worldview.  The focus is on him, not the people whose grief made them all conspire together to commit murder.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Branagh is a little full of himself, but this is a man who directed himself playing the star of Henry V and Hamlet.  He gets to play the dramatic lead, and he gets to frame that story around himself, fitting everyone else into a vehicle designed to showcase his own talent.  But maybe it’s unfair to suggest it’s all vanity.  Maybe.

There are so many great performers in this movie and so many characters I have to imagine were fun to play, but the focus is always on Poirot.  He’s the hero, the man who is able to rise above everything else, observe it from a distance.  He’s the smartest man in the room and the least eager to please.  He gets many of the best lines, and it feels as though the entire final twenty minutes of the film is just a series of close ups on Poirot rambling on.

Actually, the final act of the movie, where Poirot presents his findings to the other passengers, takes place outside of the train, with the passengers sitting behind a long table like the casting agents of a movie whom Branagh is desperate to please.  This moment makes no sense practically, but it serves the story dramatically, I suppose.  The other characters are arranged to resemble “The Last Supper,” the disciples to, I guess, Poirot’s Jesus.  God, Branagh is kind of full of himself isn’t he?  I don’t know enough to know for sure, but this all feels so vain.

It’s a fine movie that I might have enjoyed more had I not known the ending.  Still, it’s a very long soap opera that shortchanges many of the side characters and focuses on the movie’s protagonist, the director himself.  Still, it has been successful enough to green light a sequel titled “Death on the Nile.”  See?  It’s about Poirot, not the people whose grief put the plot in motion.

Up Next: Thumbsucker (2005), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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