MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Runtime: 114 mins.
Australian Release Date: 9 November 2017
Previewed at: Ritz Cinema, Randwick, Sydney, on 6 November 2017.
If you need reminding that film making is an art, not a science, go see Murder On The Orient Express. You’d think that if you took a cast of top-drawer actors under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, added a story based on a famous Agatha Christie novel and threw in an illustrious behind-the-scenes crew, nothing could possibly go wrong. And yet somehow this magic brew doesn’t have the alchemy to turn it into gold. Even the big reveal is flat; you keep waiting for something more but it never arrives.
Branagh himself plays Hercule Poirot, “possibly the most famous detective in the world,” who joins the travellers on the luxurious Orient Express on its journey from Istanbul to Paris. As the train snakes its way through Eastern Europe, one of the passengers, a dodgy art dealer by the name of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is found murdered in his cabin and the Express is derailed by a snowfall soon after, trapping all on board the train. The between-the-wars period setting (the 1930s) means they are well and truly cut off - no mobile phones here - so communication with the outside world is impossible. This, of course, gives Poirot the perfect opportunity to question the passengers, all of whom must be considered suspect as no-one has been able to leave due to the heavy snow. They include a minor European princess (Judy Dench) and her secretary (Olivia Colman), the dead man’s assistant (Josh Gad), a missionary (Penélope Cruz), a widow travelling alone (Michelle Pfeiffer), a professor (Willem Dafoe), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a governess (Daisy Ridley). Naturally, all have cast-iron alibies for the time of the murder.
You have to wonder why the producers chose this particular vehicle to invest their funds in. Older viewers will probably remember Sidney Lumet’s terrific 1974 version of Christie’s story starring Albert Finney as the Belgian sleuth, and more recently (2010) David Suchet played the role in a widely seen version of the whodunnit for television (there was another made-for-TV iteration in 2001 with Alfred Molina but the less said about that the better), so the denouement will come as no surprise to many; plus, I’m not convinced that younger filmgoers will be attracted by this cast. Blade Runner 2049 co-writer Michael Green has done a pretty good job with the script but it’s a far cry from his best work. Perhaps he felt constrained working within the confines of Christie’s well-established plot. Still, the production design is meticulous and sumptuous and the costumes fabulous. The locations (it was shot in New Zealand and Malta) are spectacular even though, oddly, some of them seem to have been enhanced with computer generated imagery and another curiosity is Patrick Doyle’s overwrought music. Doyle and Branagh have collaborated frequently before but this time the composer’s score feels somewhat heavy-handed and intrusive.
The best thing about Murder On The Orient Express is the performances. There’s much pleasure to be had in watching this excellent ensemble do what they do best. Branagh doesn’t quite capture Poirot’s eccentricities as well as some of his predecessors but his moustache, at least, is worthy of an award. Still, if you’re quick you can catch a screening of the Sidney Lumet version of MOTOE at the British Film Festival currently touring Australia. It might be a better way to spend two hours in the cinema.