Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Bateman

Spoilers, I guess. It seems seriously unnecessary to do that for a movie based on an eighty-year-old novel with multiple adaptations, but…

There are more than a dozen named characters squeezed into a fairly limited space for the bulk of this movie, and I’m not sure that anyone besides Poirot (Branagh), Bouc (Bateman), and Ratchett (Johnny Depp) have personalities. Each of their personalities advance the plot. Bouc, the playboy director of the Orient Express, is a careless administrator who devolves into Poirot’s factotum as the Belgian takes charge. Ratchett, revealed to be the notorious kidnapper and murderer John Cassetti, is somehow slimy and rough at the same time. Johnny Depp’s star has fallen significantly in the past decade, both personally and professionally, but there’s still an actor in there. Ratchett is the hernia of people: something about his insides sticks out even when he’d prefer to keep a tighter exterior, and it’s just as gross as it sounds. In one last-ditch effort to protect himself, Ratchett accosts Poirot on the train, tries to pay him to be his bodyguard for the journey, and Poirot refuses. It sounds like you’ve made your own bed, he tells Ratchett. And based on the story that the man tells, Poirot’s assessment is pretty spot on. If you sell fakes to gangsters, there’s not much you can hope for.

Poirot is the center of the film, and although the movie sets up Poirot as our hero from the first, one doesn’t feel his centrality until about halfway through the movie. It’s a welcome relief. While I didn’t need the scene where he exposes a chief of police as the thief of a Jerusalemite relic—I realize he’s not a household name the way he was some decades ago, but what does Poirot really have to prove to an audience at large?—it exists to show us why he might be in the Middle East, and more importantly to show us that he likes symmetry. Two eggs served to him at breakfast are different sizes. He steps in a pile of dung and, to maintain his balance, steps in it with the other shoe. He has a mustache as big as the Ritz, presumably to protect his upper lip from bullets or edged weapons. (It looks sort of like a Mongol bow.) He asks people to straighten his tie. If it sounds like a bad Sherlock parody, that’s because it is for about fifteen minutes. Branagh always has more of a sense of humor than Cumberbatch; he can chuckle with little kids and make wry comments here and there which serve purposes other than exemplifying the antisocial brilliance of the detective. What works in Murder on the Orient Express is that eventually, when Poirot comes up against the fact that he cannot bring the case to a typically satisfying conclusion, he does not need to have someone else do the work of being human for him; there’s no call for Martin Freeman to pop on over and explain why people do or don’t live a certain way. When Poirot addresses the train to tell them, corporately, that he intends to pretend that the murder of Cassetti was done by some agent who secreted aboard the train and disappeared, he does not need to tell them (or, obviously, us) what the stakes are. His monologue addresses the scales of justice and their weight, but he does not need to pound home some lesson about how leaving this case is like walking around with a single shoe with poop on the bottom. He does not need to say that failing to bring a satisfactory end to this case might puncture the pleasing aura of invincibility he carries with him. He does not need to demand gratitude. He simply leaves the train for the next assignment. Poirot is not a terrifically complex character. If we’re honest, he only has a couple of notes, and they are only as interesting as Branagh’s accented performance can make them. But it’s enough; the mystery is the thing, not the detective. The plot is the most interesting character to be unraveled.

Everyone else in the movie is a much quieter note, and only when they are all together do they build to a hum. It’s why I like Lucy Boynton and Daisy Ridley and Derek Jacobi and Penelope Cruz and, yeah, even Josh Gad. Boynton, as the ailing Countess Andrenyi, is like a koala in a nightgown, awkward on the ground and holding onto nearby pillars of strength. Ridley (who is just too young for the part she’s playing) is one of the most engaging people on the train, in many ways the most like a real human being. Jacobi, one of Branagh’s most consistent collaborators, is perfectly dry; Cruz, whose character was played by Ingrid Bergman in the ’74 version, has very little screen time but is just tremendously intense. Josh Gad is not the best of the supporting bunch, but it’s a welcome relief from his comic roles. There’s no laughter in his face or voice; the whine that’s always there remains as he avers his innocence, but he doesn’t call on it for humor. All of those performances, with the possible exception of Cruz’s, would be completely unsustainable over the course of entire picture—Boynton’s languor would be as dull as Gad’s resistance, and Ridley would be almost as empty as Jacobi. That’s fine! People with really limited screen time, on the aggregate, don’t need much besides one-word descriptions and a couple scenes apiece for atmosphere. The actors are also a strong case in favor of diverse casting even in period pieces. Leslie Odom, Jr., late of Hamilton (and briefly sharing the screen with Hadley Fraser—but no duet! Shame!), plays Arbuthnot. In the last feature adaptation of the novel, Sean Connery played Arbuthnot. As previously covered, Cruz is playing a role typically given to someone Scandinavian. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is playing a part that used to belong to an Italian. I like that the movie doesn’t use its period bona fides as a cover for another all-white affair. Not every picture is so fortunate to be so adaptable, but this one is, and whoever was in charge of casting did well here.

As a director, it’s another qualified success from Branagh. I think it’s clear that at this point he’ll never reach the heights of Much Ado About Nothing or especially Hamlet, which is magnificent. All the same there are some interesting choices that he makes as a director which are not showy for showiness’ sake. Just as an actor’s movements must have intense purpose to become meaningful, so must the camera’s movements and positioning have a reason if they’re to be useful. I found some of Branagh’s flourishes to be thoroughly useful. In one scene, as a small crowd gathers in the corridor to discuss the recently discovered corpse of Cassetti, the camera begins from above. No one’s face is shown in this scene, and why should they be? This is verisimilitude: you cannot fit another observer into that corridor, camera or otherwise, and depicting the scene from above makes the most sense. I also like his use of beveled glass to create multiples of his characters, who are themselves hiding significant truths. For every one of those shots, we end up getting something rather less effective. The reveal of what Poirot knows just doesn’t work. There’s a table in a cave, with the train looking on behind an increasingly animated Poirot. It’s weird, and it doesn’t do any of the actors any favors as it removes their ability to adequately react to one another. Juxtaposed with Branagh’s black and white recreation of the actual murder, which is surprisingly chilling, it’s an unfortunate finish to what had previously been a pretty solid movie.

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