‘Murder on the Orient Express’ –  a 2017 remake with more glitter, less fizz than original

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Whodunit?

Kenneth Branagh done it.

Whydoit?

A much better question.

In 1974, Sidney Lumet directed a star-studded cast in a movie version of Agatha Christie’s delicious murder-mystery, “Murder on the Orient Express.”

This was when stars were still stars, not reality show stalwarts or a cog in the Mighty Marvel Machine.

We’re talking bigger-than-life presences like Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave. Even Jacqueline Bisset and Michael York (Big deals in the ‘70s and beautiful to boot.) Stars whose careers spanned decades, careers that were covered in Oscars.

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express – 2017 version

Kenneth Branagh — no stranger to long careers and Oscars himself — directs and stars in this glittery remake. Unfortunately, the silver place settings in the dining car and brass fixtures in the first-class sleeping compartments are that glitter. The cast — and Branagh’s surprisingly serious take — doesn’t have half the shine.

Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famously fussy and infallible Belgian detective. It’s the ‘30s and exotic places are still exotic. Introduced in Jerusalem, Poirot quickly establishes his persnickety bonafides by sending an adorable little boy back and forth to the market until he can provide two perfect eggs for monsieur’s breakfast.

Poirot has barely wiped his moustache — and what a moustache it is — before he’s asked to solve a mystery. A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into…no, they’re lined up against the Wailing Wall, all suspects in the theft of a religious relic.

In a style that can only be called the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes Method (i.e., quick-cut flashbacks that inject action into what is actually a brain puzzler), Poirot finds the real thief.

Then, having earned himself a little R&R, he heads for Istanbul and boards the Orient Express for points west.

He joins a dozen or so strangers on the train (or are they?) Among them: a distasteful thug/antique dealer (Johnny Depp); his assistant (Josh Gad) and valet (Derek Jacobi); a slightly off-her-rocker missionary (Penelope Cruz); a Russian countess in decline (Judi Dench); a stand-up doctor (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom, Jr.); a demure governess (Daisy Ridley); and Michelle Pfeiffer as a glamorous cougar on the prowl (the role is beyond insulting, yet Pfeiffer is the only one who seems to understand how much star-power it takes to put something like this over.)

A couple of things interrupt the journey. There’s a magnificent avalanche that strands the train on a perilous trestle (in 1974, the train merely gets stuck in the snow).

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, the detective in the story

Oh, and someone gets murdered.

It’s not that the cast is a bunch of nobodies. (Who’s going to call Johnny Depp a nobody?) Or even that they aren’t very memorable. It’s that Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049) have drained all the fun out of Christie’s mischief.

Simply put, the movie lacks panache. Playfulness. Wit. Instead, it’s flat. As flat as week-old champagne.

Branagh takes everything too seriously. Poirot now has a long-lost love whose framed photo he sorrowfully addresses when stressed out. And he has a strict code of honor: “There is right. There is wrong. There is no in-between.”

Perhaps that explains why, when Poirot gives his Big Reveal, the suspects are lined up like the disciples at The Last Supper.

Finally, the film is just plain confusing. The ’74 version took pains to explain (more than once) who was who and what was what. By the end of this  “Murder,” about the only thing you are absolutely certain about is that one of the passengers has been murdered.

Oh, and that Branagh’s moustache is a hair adornment for the ages.

Addendum: not to get too snobby, because many of the actors here have done — and continue to do — excellent work. But we are talking star-shine, so please consider: Perkins and Gielgud vs. Gad and Jacobi.  Ya’ know?

murder on the orient express

Murder on the Orient Express poster

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

1 reply
  1. Howard Benson says:

    We were minutes from walking out of this dismal, slogging “mystery” when it finally picked up enough momentum to get us to remain for the arduous denouement. The film was confusing, in part, because of the dialects and sound level, but as you point out, the director simply didn’t elaborate on the characters very well. I expected the glamour factor of the stars and the train itself to carry at least some of the load, but that didn’t happen and the express turned out to be a slow moving milk train.Report

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