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‘Murder on the Orient Express’ a wild ride

November 10, 2017
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Mystery remake features all-star ensemble

Every once in a while, Hollywood’s current fixation on remakes and reboots veers from the cynical and predictable and winds up heading in an unexpected direction.

So it is with “Murder on the Orient Express.” Even in an environment where the past is mined heavily for the present’s inspiration, a remake of a 1974 Sidney Lumet film based on an Agatha Christie novel from 40 years before that is a bit of a surprise.

But it works.

This latest iteration of the classic mystery tale is directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also stars as Christie’s brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot) from a screenplay adapted by Michael Green. It is an old-fashioned film in the best sense, brimming with charm and featuring striking backdrops and a top-notch ensemble cast packed with talent and more than a few familiar faces. It wouldn’t be out of place in the movie theaters of generations past – and that’s actually kind of refreshing.

It’s 1934. Branagh is Poirot, an internationally famous detective who is looking for nothing more than some rest and relaxation after an extensive run of solving seemingly insoluble cases. After wrapping up a relic theft in Jerusalem, Poirot makes his way to Istanbul and starts planning his journey across the continent.

But when he happens to run into his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, “Snatched”) – a likable rogue who just happens to be a director for the Orient Express – the detective finds himself booked on the fabled train along with a fascinating and diverse group of fellow travelers.

There’s the lovely and sharp-witted governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and the erudite Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr., TV’s “Person of Interest”). Shady “antiquities dealer” Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) is aboard, along with his secretary Hector McQueen (Josh Gad, “Marshall”) and valet Masterman (Derek Jacobi, “Stratton”). You’ve got fast-talking salesman Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, “The Magnificent Seven”), pious missionary Pilar (Penelope Cruz, “Loving Pablo”) and man-hungry wealthy divorcee Caroline (Michelle Pfeiffer, “Mother!”).

Also onboard are famed dancers (and European nobles) the Andrenyis – Count Rudolph (Sergei Polunin in his feature debut) and Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton, “Let Me Go”). Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench, “Victoria and Abdul”) is aboard with her two little dogs and her attendant Hildegarde (Olivia Colman, TV’s “Broadchurch”). So too is racist Austrian engineering professor Gerhard Harman (Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”).

Other than Poirot, Bouc and conductor Pierre (Marwan Kenzari, “The Mummy”), there are no other travelers on the train – a fact that becomes of particular interest when mystery makes its way aboard. Specifically – murder.

One of the passengers turns up dead, stabbed multiple times without making a sound in a small sleeping berth. The scene is littered with contradictory clues as to who may have committed the crime. And when an avalanche leaves the train derailed and temporarily stranded, these strangers on a train find themselves trapped alongside an unknown murderer.

And so it is up to Poirot – the world’s greatest detective – to attempt to solve a crime where everyone is a potential suspect and different clues point in different directions. Plus, he has to do it before the train is put back on track and reaches the next station. He must try and solve the unsolvable, but hey – he’s Hercule Poirot. It’s what he does.

There’s not a lot more that one can comfortably say about “Murder on the Orient Express” in terms of the plot. It’s a mystery – the less you know going in, the better. There’s a murder. Somebody did it. Hercule Poirot has to figure it out. Really, that’s all you need.

(And yes – it’s a remake of a movie from 40-plus years ago based on a book from 80-plus years ago, so there’s probably a spoiler statute of limitations or whatever, but you’re not going to hear them from me.)

There’s a throwback feel to this film that’s quite lovely; it’s reminiscent of a different era in filmmaking. It makes sense – Branagh himself is a bit of throwback in a lot of ways, so this is the kind of project that fits his aesthetic nicely. He acquits himself well here, creating a stylish and sumptuous visual experience that meshes beautifully with the talent that he’s assembled. Screenwriter Green – primarily known for his sci-fi/superhero work - does well in capturing the subtle, steady flow of the story.

And again – that cast.

Branagh is fabulous as Poirot, clearly relishing the opportunity to play such an iconic character (though there are moments where his utterly magnificent mustache threatens to upstage him). He’s always at his best when tackling a classic – he doesn’t disappoint. As for the rest, you’ve got British acting royalty in Dench and Jacobi – both of whom are as excellent as you’d expect. Depp once again revels in subverting his movie stardom. Dafoe is sharp and crusty. Cruz is subtle and engaging. Gad, too – perhaps surprisingly so. Ridley shines bright, as do Bateman and Odom.

The less familiar faces (at least to me) – folks like Garcia-Rulfo, Polunin, Boynton, Colman and Kenzari – were just as great, slotting seamlessly into an ensemble where everyone was on the same level and sharing the storytelling duties with ease.

(Oh, and let’s all celebrate the fact that Michelle Pfeiffer might give the best performance of the bunch. She’s phenomenal throughout; it’s a welcome reminder of just how incredibly talented an actor she is. It’s nice to see her dig into something like this with the ideal balance of seriousness and glee.)

“Murder on the Orient Express” might ostensibly be a part of the remake trend, but it is also the sort of movie that we should all hope Hollywood continues to make. There is still room for this kind of film, an ensemble experience featuring both big-budget production values and engaging storytelling that offers an alternative to the blockbuster bombast of typical Hollywood fare.

In short, it’s a ride worth taking.

[4 out of 5] 

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