GUEST CRITIC #26: Murder on the Orient Express
As busy I get from time to time, I find that I can't see every movie under the sun, leaving my friends and colleagues to fill in the blanks for me. As poetically as I think I wax about movies on this website as a wannabe critic, there are other experts out there. Sometimes, it inspires me to see the movie too and get back to being my circle's go-to movie guy. Sometimes, they save me $9 and you 800+ words of blathering. In a new review series, I'm opening my site to friend submissions for guest movie reviews.
TODAY'S CRITIC: A friend and pro!
Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle member Jeff York and I may not have known each other personally until 2016, but we go way back as fellow published local critics from the now-defunct Examiner.com. We followed each other's work and when the CIFCC came to be, I had to seek him out to join their ranks. Today, Jeff is a competing screenwriter and accomplished caricature artist on the side. As a critic, he writes on his website The Establishing Shot and hosts the "Page 2 Screen" podcast on the Curious About Screenwriting Network for the International Screenwriters' Association.
The man is a delight to talk to on any and all topics, but our movie chats have become truly special. I ran into a busy week where I ran out of free nights to attend all of the advance screenings available to me. Jeff was able to view and review Kenneth Branagh's remake of Murder on the Orient Express. He's a self-professed fan and cover-to-cover expert on the Agatha Christie source novel and the previously celebrated 1974 film adaptation. His review will do better informative service than mine ever would.
In 2013, the Agatha Christie estate signed with talent agency William Morris Endeavor (WME) to remake her works and revive her reputation as one of the greatest female authors of all time. A generation or two had lost track of her works and the sterling reputation she fostered as the world’s foremost mystery writer. Thus, the estate struck a deal to remake her classics through film, television, and digital media. And one of the first efforts is a shiny new remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It pulls into the station this weekend, and it reminds the world that when it comes to procedurals, no one can match the panache of Dame Agatha. And while this new adaptation, directing by and starring Kenneth Branagh, doesn’t come close to matching the 1974 classic film, it still is a whole lot of frothy fun.
In some respects, Christie’s original material is so delicious, it’s hard not to savor her twisty storytelling, no matter how it’s been updated or reimagined. Set aboard the opulent Orient Express passenger train in 1934, the luxury train is a gorgeous and elegant setting for her to juxtapose a nasty little murder against, and it became such a trope of her, it became a cliché. Christie just loved to take the piss out of the upper class, thus she always placed manicured men and high society ladies in glorious settings that were soon ruined by a distasteful and low-class murder. And whether it was her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot or her doddering dowager Miss Marple, Christie would always bring the rich and pampered down by the righteous fingering from her intrepid sleuths. And indeed, this is one of Poirot’s most incredible take-downs.
The murder victim here is an evil wolf in Saville Row clothing named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp). He pretends to be a rich businessman, traveling the world over and collecting art, yet he comes by his money in the bloodiest of fashions. The gauche and graceless creep used to be a gangster, and his most notorious crime was in the kidnapping and murder of a little rich girl named Daisy Armstrong. Based loosely on the famous Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932, Ratchett got away with murder, as well as all the money. But in this story, justice will take him for a ride.
His mob ties and sorted past make him a paranoid traveler. On his train trip bound for London from Istanbul, Ratchett offers fellow passenger Poirot (Branagh) 10 grand to be his bodyguard. Over a shared confection in the dining car, Poirot refuses, telling his potential employer, “I do not like your face.” Somebody else on the train doesn’t like it much either and ensures that Ratchett receives more just desserts later that evening when he is stabbed 12 times in his cabin.
Poirot is called into service by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), the train company’s big shot aboard, and the Belgian realizes in no time at all that he has more suspects than he can shake his silver-topped cane at. The collected assortment of potential murderers traveling in the Calais coach include a brash widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), an earnest teacher (Daisy Ridley), a strict missionary (Penelope Cruz), a Russian royal (Judi Dench), her assistant (Olivia Colman), a black doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a count (Sergei Polunin), his countess (Lucy Boynton), a German professor (Willem Dafoe), a car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the train’s attendant (Marwan Kenzari), along with the dead’s man secretary (Josh Gad) and manservant (Derek Jacobi). Whodunit? Whydunit? And Whendunit?
For the bulk of the film, Poirot interviews each passenger. He’s got some time as the train is snowbound from a nighttime avalanche, but he needs to find the killer quick before the local authorities get their hands on the case. Most all of this is in the book, as well as in the classic ’74 film stunningly directed by Sidney Lumet, but from there, Branagh’s trip on the train takes a few different routes.
For starters, Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot indulges in some key differences from the written page. Christie described the detective this way in “The Mystery of the Bagdad Chest”:
“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendor of his famous mustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy.”
Yes, Branagh plays a well-dressed, inveterate dandy, but after that, he’s quite different. He’s still leading man handsome, lean, and even dashing here. That’s hardly the sinister little troll often seen offending those he interrogates in the books. Poirot’s fastidious little mustache is nowhere to be found here. Instead, his facial hair is a thick, wrap-around mustache more President Chester A. Arthur than prissy European. Branagh also makes his Poirot exceedingly physical, running about, traipsing out in the cold, and wielding his cane as if it were a lightsaber. It’s hard to imagine previous the Poirot’s of Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, and David Suchet working up such a sweat.
One can clearly see the influence of the Benedict Cumberbatch SHERLOCK series which updated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective in similarly aggressive and action-oriented ways. This may infuriate some Christie purists, but it’s actually no less egregious than the numerous bald Belgians played by actors like Suchet and even Tony Randall back in 1965’s THE ALPHABET MURDERS. The truth is, Christie described Poirot as having the appearance of a full head of hair. The point goes to Mr. Branagh, and overall, this is an engaging, clever and savvy performance.
Clearly, though, the filmmaker has set out to present a new take on the old material. Most of his deviations still work here because of the core mystery remains the same, but it is interesting to note all the ways he’s let screenwriter Michael Green freely play with the Christie canon. Colonel Arbuthnot is now a doctor and a black man. Christie’s digs at racism and sexism, served mostly as subtext in the original story, have moved to the forefront here. And even the detective’s gathering all the suspects into a drawing room to announce the murderer is given a fresh spin as Poirot addresses all of them outside where they’re seated at a long table in the train tunnel. It’s a visual that is more reminiscent of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” than the Christie cliché, but who knows why.
The ending still is a boffo surprise for those who don’t know it, and to his credit, Green actually hides the inevitable longer than in most previous filmed versions. Branagh ensures that the film looks like a million bucks and showcases the train decked out in all its glory. There’s a great shot of a waiter measuring the distance from the end of a spoon to the end of the dining table. Indeed, they still do that on the train as I had the privilege of vacationing on the Orient Express a decade ago and I saw that practice first-hand.
Branagh does make some unfortunate errors in the telling here. For starters, he all but glosses over the backstory of the Armstrong case. Shown in the middle of the film as black and white flashbacks, one never gets the sense of the enormity of the crime and its devastation. The original film did a brilliant job setting that up in its very opening and this version suffers in comparison. In fact, from the crime to the mourning of the loss of the child, that ’74 film packed more of an emotional wallop than it does here.
The director also doesn't make the train particularly treacherous. Sure, there’s a dangerous chase on the bridge underneath the train, and the snowy exteriors provide a certain amount of danger, but the train never seems like a setting that enables crime. Saddest of all, most of the characters register as types but fail to connect with the audience as people worthy of our full interest. Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and most notably, Josh Gad, shine but few else make much of an impression. Bit players like Polunin and Boynton barely register at all. And how can Penelope Cruz be squandered so? She’s dramatically cast against type here playing a rigid stiff of a Christian harpy, but does she even have eight lines? It’s the biggest missed opportunity of the film to give the likes of her, as well as Dench, Dafoe and Colman so little to do.
Finally, Branagh rushes his finale and for those who’ve never experienced the story on the page or screen, the gist of it all may be more than a little lost. It is one of Christie’s most intricately plotted denouements, and Lumet famously took 35 minutes for Poirot to explain the who, why, what and where of the crime in the ’74 classic. It played as a spellbinding explanation of all that had occurred, as well as a masterly actor’s showcase for Finney who received a richly deserved Oscar nod for Best Actor. Branagh is an actor who could equal that monologue but chooses instead to settle the story’s score in a mere 10 minutes or so.
Yet, and the end of it all, this is still Christie and it’s one of her greatest yarns. All her stories are intricate puzzles that dazzle, but this one shines especially so, even in a good, but not great version. For those who think television’s CSI is a great procedural or count THE BLACK LIST as a tale with superb twists and turns, they need to see this MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. And then they should see the 1974 version to be wowed even more.
It’s great to see Dame Agatha back on the big screen. And in the year of Wonder Woman, and various actresses bringing thugs like Harvey Weinstein down, it’s opportune to realize just how important a writer Christie was in her time and still is today. Not only was she an incredible writer, but she managed to be during a period in history when women had barely earned the right to vote. And she used her own name, not some bogus male pen name. Ignoring her greatness, courage, and Herculean achievements, well, that would be the real crime.
Wonderful work, Jeff! Your writing is as amazing as your art. Friends, if you see a movie that I don't see and want to be featured on my website (and get a fun fake biography written about you), hit up my website's Facebook page and you can be my next GUEST CRITIC!