Wednesday 29 November 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) - Movie Review

Kenneth Branagh, when all is said and done, is a filmmaker who operates best in the realm of adaptation. Starting out by bringing some of Shakespeare’s greatest stories to the big screen in roaring fashion, right down to what has become the definitive version of Hamlet (all four hours of it), he has since gone on to give the same treatment to operas, spy thriller novels, superheroes, even Disney princesses. The respective qualities of each of those examples definitely differs, but I would argue that the man always manages to leave an impression on whatever genre he decides to take on. Today marks yet another new avenue for the man, this time delving into a murder mystery adapted from legendary writer Agatha Christie. Do we see the little grey cells go off in Branagh’s head once again, or are they sitting this one out?

The plot: Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), after solving a theft in Jerusalem, takes the Orient Express to London to take care of another case. However, once a dead body shows up on the train, it seems his plan for a small vacation is interrupted as he is called upon to solve the murder, a feat that will prove difficult as it seems any of the other passengers could be the culprit.

Branagh, while giving himself more screen time than would be advisable, does well with the dry and very matter-of-fact dialogue he’s given. The man has an uncanny knack for infusing characters with all the charisma and that stays true here, making his vast presence in the production feel like a good move on his part… at first, but we’ll get into that. Putting aside whatever jokes could be made about how playing someone evil isn’t much of a stretch for him, Johnny Depp leaves a decent impression as the increasingly dubious Ratchett.
The rest of the main cast basically monologue their way through the story, and the results are mostly good. Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi and Michelle Pfeiffer and even Tom Bateman as Poirot’s douchebag-with-a-heart-of-gold friend Bouc all do splendidly with their roles, hitting some serious pathos when it comes time to show their respective connections to the case. Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley are alright as well, but they end up being at the lower end of the average between the rest of the cast.

Well, this film already checks out with the visuals; seriously, this thing is goddamn gorgeous. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos may get a little too creative in certain shots, like the awkward attempts to include overhead shots in a cramped space, but the framing and incredibly fluid camera work make for sumptuous viewing. It’s so smooth and gliding, whether it’s following characters down the narrow pathways on the train or just following Poirot through the train from the outside, that it’s likely to hold an audience’s attention all on its own. I especially liked how it framed the initial suspects once the mystery properly starts, using reflections and refracted light to create the kind of thematic camera work that we don’t usually get nowadays.

Not that it slouches much in terms of writing, though. Michael Green, who also co-wrote Logan and Blade Runner 2049, does quite well at pulling us into the world of Poirot. Specifically, the world as Poirot sees it. Part of that is down to Branagh’s performance, naturally, but the way the writing around him highlights Poirot’s perfectionism and need for the world to be balanced while also keeping it from being too overbearing is quite commendable. Honestly, the gag about Poirot’s moustache guard that he apparently goes to bed wearing makes not being able to take that bloody facial hair seriously sit a bit easier. It also starts out on a remarkably good foot as well, showing the theft in Jerusalem in a way that sets the tone for what is to come both in style and bombast. 
Through Poirot’s perspective of justice, the order of the law and what he sees as the order of the universe, the resulting story and its perspectives on morality and the rationale for murder makes for interesting contemplations. It also manages to take something that’s always been close to Branagh, his penchant for racially-diverse casting, and brings it to the forefront to add some racial conflicts to the overall mystery. Bear in mind that this is my first real experience with an actual Poirot story, so that last one could be a staple of the original story for all I know, but as shown here, it ultimately makes sense and shows that Branagh has made a career out of practicing what he preaches in that regard.

So, the characters are solid, the acting matches them for better or for worse, and the visuals essentially forces us to pay attention… so why is the mystery itself so weak? Even without prior experience with the material, there’s a definite feeling that this is an adaptation made for people already familiar with the narrative. Because of this, the central murder mystery is lacking in two crucial details: Pacing and tension. The pacing, because of how much space Poirot takes up, never gives us a sense that the characters on the train actually count as such. Most of their dialogue is comprised of exposition, and even once the liars are revealed, it still feels like we’ve been explained far too much in a film that clearly knows how to tell a story visually.
The tension, on the other hand, isn’t even that existent. Branagh appears more focused on visuals and banter than the events of the mystery itself, and because of that, the twists and turns of the plot don’t register much more than a shrug. Even for a first-timer, the twists didn’t affect me that much. The actual story itself is good and I can tell that there is a good version of it kicking around somewhere… but unfortunately, it isn’t here in the strictest sense.

All in all, this is a beautifully-captured mess of a film. While it’s visually stunning, well-cast and containing some rather fun dialogue, the core of the story doesn’t grip nearly as hard as it should. Regardless of previous experience with this story, a murder mystery without tension or a real sense of progression is a pretty bad sign, and although there are a lot of appealing elements surrounding it, it still lacks that punch to make it feel like the journey was worth the time.

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