A charming but uneven murder mystery

I made the potentially problematic decision, to screen Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” a few days after watching the recent 2017 Kenneth Branagh directed version. Both films are, of course, based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. Somehow, despite my fascination with both Lumet and Christie, I had managed to avoid both the previous adaptation and the novel. This made me, probably, the only critic in the world who saw Branagh’s version without knowing where it would head. What prompted a new adaptation more than 80 years after the 1934 novel? I am not sure. And, oddly, I’m not too sure that Branagh and company have a particularly solid reason either. Still, every film does not need a grand thesis statement to be worth making. Nonetheless, there seems to be a mild hint of ire among the critical intelligentsia regarding the decision for the new adaptation. On the surface, I understand. Kenneth Branagh, for all his charm, is no Sidney Lumet when it comes to directing. And yet, Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is hardly the film that marks his excellence. This material will never be “Dog Day Afternoon.”

A film like “Murder on the Orient Express” immediately has my interest just for the surface level thrill it promises–an ensemble film. Character studies are great, and oftentimes tend to be ripe for better films, but there is a distinct pleasure in seeing a dozen or more actors thrust together in service of a single plot. It’s the inherent point of any drawing-room murder mystery, and perhaps the only thing that either adaptation is especially notable for. In “Murder on the Orient Express,” a very nasty man has been murdered in his cabin while the train is en route to Calais from Turkey. The train is derailed and there is nowhere to go. Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, a Christie staple, is on board and reluctantly decides to solve the case of the murdered man. Someone on the train must have murdered him. But who? And why?

The story’s conceit, that the characters are all forced to stay in each other’s company is  something of a non-issue then as the crime is solved through a series of interviews with each potential suspect. And so, the ensemble cast only rarely interact as an ensemble. It’s a blow to the promise of seeing the star-studded cast interact with each other. Ensemble murder mysteries have rarely come better than Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” a film that pulsates not just with the shadow of murder looming but with the awkwardness of the interaction between the different classes. As presented, there is little possibility of that on the “Orient Express.” I rather suspect, then, that there is no ideal way to adapt this story, which works better on the page than on the screen. Indeed, Lumet is no Branagh and truly this new “Orient Express” is notable for the way it’s visually schizophrenic.

Branagh’s initial decision to prolong our time off the train is problematic. This mystery is more about the person solving the case than the mystery itself, and it’s this sort of lack of self-awareness that Branagh’s biggest critics get him for in the films where he appears as both actor and director. The 1974 version is 130 minutes long. And we begin boarding the train about 15 minutes in. The new version is about fifteen minutes shorter and still we take almost 25 minutes to reach the train. It betrays the film’s critical issue – it is too focused on Poirot. Too much time for Branagh to be a showboat. He is never bad as Poirot but he’s an inconsistent one. The film wants to paint him in broad strokes, like the idiosyncratic interpretation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes on the recent BBC crime drama. It also wants to give him a brief (albeit dead) romantic interest to give him humanity. He must be funny, but also stern. And also agile. It’s too much. Poirot should be a side dish. We want the entrée of the case.

The bits around him, despite being back loaded, offer diverting elements. Johnny Depp, currently persona non grata due to abuse allegations that cropped up during his divorce, is impressively compelling as the one awful person on board. He leans into the nastiness and gives a compelling performance. Michelle Pfeiffer glows on the big screen, reminding those of us who had forgotten about her ability to command attention. She is the film’s easy standout. The rest of the cast does not have much to do. Some manage their rationed roles well, others don’t. Penelope Cruz, for example, has even less time than Ingrid Bergman had playing the role of the penitent missionary to Oscar glory. Cruz, though, emphasises her undervalued ability to act with her face. She is marvellous in a brief bit. Leslie Odom Jr, though, seems lost between his role as a kindly doctor and his chemistry with Daisy Ridley is never significant. Derek Jacobi is always diverting, but seems uncertain of what to do with his sliver of a role.

Beyond the acting, there are some great shots of the snow-bound train, a diverting score and a sweet original song, sung by Pfeiffer and played over the credits. If it all feels a little effete, it’s because it probably is. But it’s all perfectly fine, too. What can I say? When it all ended, I had no regrets. I’m not sure the family of ten, with four children, who were in my row were as entertained. And I don’t know what to make of some Branagh’s more bizarre directorial choices. But “Murder on the Orient Express” is such a slick bit of counterprogramming. No superheroes, no gunfights (okay, a little one, but nothing major), and nothing unnecessarily abstruse. It never does find the right tone, but even if the whole thing never coalesces there’s something charming to extract from what’s being served.

Have a comment? Write to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com

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