The Branagh Love Train
Murder on the Orient Express is directed by Kenneth Branagh and is based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie. The film stars Branagh alongside an ensemble cast: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. It is the fourth screen adaptation of Christie's novel, following the 1974 film, a 2001 TV film version, and an episode of the TV series, Agatha Christie's Poirot.
A question that I sometimes wonder is, "What goes through filmmakers' minds when they go about a remake?" The answer I personally want to hear is, "We believe this material was not done justice the first time, so we're going to try and make it better." If that was the reasoning behind all film remakes, then, my gosh, cinematic history would regard remakes as a holier than thou branch of films that would be showered with confetti, loved and adored by historians nationwide. But let's rewind for a second. The answer to, "What goes through filmmakers' minds when they go about a remake?" is more often than not, especially in this day and age, going to be something along the lines of, "We want to give this source material a modern day upgrade and bring it back into the minds of audiences nationwide." But let's stop kidding ourselves folks. The creative bankruptcy that strangles the film industry today is the real culprit at work here, making the correct answer to the question at hand, "We're doing this remake because we can't think up anything else to do."
In the case of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, the purpose behind this fourth screen adaptation of Christie's mystery novel is unclear. The book was already given one previous screen adaptation: a 1974 British film directed by Sidney Lumet that was nominated for several Oscars and did well at the box office. So if the first film adaptation was a critical and commercial hit, why bother making it again? It would seem that screenwriter Michael Green never heard of the 1974 film, or that he bet on audiences having never heard of the 1974 film, the latter being the more likely scenario.
The plot is largely intact from Christie's novel: Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is called to London to work on a case. Poirot is offered a room aboard the Orient Express train, where he meets businessman Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Ratchett offers Poirot a job as a bodyguard, having received threatening letters from someone, but Poirot refuses. That night, Poirot hears strange noises coming out of Ratchett's compartment, but nothing is made of it. Not long afterwards, an avalanche derails the engine and strands the passengers. The next morning, Ratchet is found murdered in his compartment, and the suspects are a group of passengers all together in one of the train cars. Poirot investigates the suspects one by one, finding out that there is more to this murder than meets the eye.
Do not be fooled by the film's glossy look and promising setup. This murder on a train that has the potential to be something fun like Clue is instead presented as a story that, in the end, is much more serious than anticipated. And while that's not the fault of Michael Green or Kenneth Branagh, it is mishandled quite a bit by Branagh in terms of its execution, as Branagh's presentation of the story does a better job of sucking all of the excitement out of you and leaving you disappointed. In other words, this is a dull and anticlimactic adaptation of Christie's mystery novel, and damn do I wish that I had seen the 1974 film first, which I'm sure is loads more interesting.
- I can at least say that Murder on the Orient Express is impressive looking, being shot on 65mm film that helps the colors and textures stand out more. Occasional shots of the train or the lovely landscape give you something to look forward to, though that's not a good sign when I say I'm much more interested in looking at what's around the characters instead of what the characters are talking about. That being said, scenes taking place off the train are much more interesting than those that happen on the train, as off the train, we have the advantage of watching the characters talk in the middle of a shiny winter backdrop as opposed to the confined space of a train car.
- The one person that Kenneth Branagh cares the most about in this movie is Kenneth Branagh, as Poirot is made out to be the center of attention in practically every scene. We learn of Poirot being an obsessive compulsive who always wants to keep life in balance, but the examination of Poirot's character is done at the expense of the all the suspects. If you thought you were going to get something of a delicious potluck with this group of actors together in one place, think again. Several of the suspects are pencil thin characters that are good for only one or two scenes, reducing several of the actors' roles to hardly more than a cameo. The one scene that really stuck out to me in relation to this low point was the scene in which we hear the strange noises coming out of Ratchett's compartment. The guard goes over to ask if everything is okay, and as the guard is walking over, we see Poirot stick his head out of his door to see what's going on. Does Poirot have to know what's going on? Why would he care about a few noises coming out of Ratchett's compartment, especially after he turned down a job offer from Ratchett? It makes Poirot look nosy, more than anything.
- As for Murder on the Orient Express being dull, this is due to the film's slow start and the actual murder investigation being rather lacking in variety. It takes almost a full half hour before anything of significance happens, and Poirot's investigation is little more than him pulling each suspect aside and asking them a series of questions, which gets old fast. There are a few violent acts that attempt to spice things up a bit, but it all comes crashing down in a dialogue-heavy reveal scene that lacks any kind of dramatic impact, largely because the movie gives us little to no reason to care for the majority of the murder suspects. The movie also being too busy focusing on Poirot doesn't help matters either.
I don't like to bash remakes just because they're remakes, but for something like Murder on the Orient Express, you can't help but wonder about the purpose. Why is this movie being remade? Why remake it if there was already a good version done before? It's not like there was some recent worldwide upswing in Agatha Christie fans and they were all screaming for a Christie book to film adaptation. But despite this remake being largely uninspired, it didn't drive people away from the box office, as the movie brought home a nice $350 million gross. However, I'm willing to bet on that being because the movie made itself look like a fun, stylish murder mystery while boasting a big name cast, neither of which turn out to be strengths of the film (save for the stylish part). Instead, Murder on the Orient Express ends up being a boring mystery drama that is presented way too seriously. Kenneth Branagh's infatuation with himself in this movie does more harm than good, and I have utterly no excitement for an upcoming 2019 sequel. This is a train that should've stayed at the station.
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