Thursday, May 17, 2018
"Murder on the Orient Express" (2017)
Although I already knew the basic plot of Murder on the Orient Express because I've read the Agatha Christie novel a couple times, I still spent my first viewing just following the story. It's been years since I read the book, so I'm not sure how closely it followed that, but I did NOT remember several things, like (spoiler alert) how it involved a kidnapping much like the Lindbergh case (end spoilers) -- I'm going to have to re-read the book to see just how faulty my memory of it is. One thing I did remember was the ending. Which I feel they were faithful to here.
Let's all admit, though, that really we're watching this more for the all-star cast and the pretty costumes than the plot, shall we? Because there have been other movie versions of this same story, most notably the 1974 film that also boasted an all-star cast. And this is probably Christie's most-famous book, so people generally have a basic idea of what it's about. In case you don't, here's my fairly non-spoiler-y rundown of the plot:
Famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has just finished solving a case in Jerusalem when he's urgently called to consult on another one. He acquires a spot on the already-filled Orient Express train. And once the train is underway, there's a murder. And an avalanche that stops the train. Because he's a famous detective, he gets asked to solve the murder, and of course one of the other quirky passengers must be the murderer because they're in the middle of nowhere. It's a fun variation on the old "country house murder" scenario.
Branagh directed and produced the film as well as starring in it. I happen to be very fond of him as a director because he knows how to tell a good story in a straightforward, non-frilly manner that pleases me. While this story is necessarily more complicated than, say, Cinderella (2015) or Thor (2011), it's got a lot in common with the many Shakespearean films he's directed. Certainly this star-studded cast is nothing compared to his Hamlet (1996), a story much more complex than this. It's his ability to tell a convoluted story in a straight-forward way that makes me like his directing so much, and certainly that added to my enjoyment of Orient Express. While the story has many tangled twists and turns, I was never confused. None of the surprises felt jarring or unwarranted. Everything made magnificent sense in the end, which of course is a tribute to Agatha Christie's original story, and to Michael Green's screenplay, but also to Branagh's clarity as a director, I think.
And Branagh's acting is no less adept. At first, you want to dismiss his Poirot as a persnickety, obsessive caricature. But as the film progresses, we see the wistful man behind the absurd mustache. He holds sacred the memory of a girl he once loved, or perhaps I should say, the girl he still loves, but has lost. He has little patience for greedy or grasping people, but much sympathy for those who are troubled or hurting. He dispenses with pleasantries when they are no use, but is punctiliously polite otherwise. And, over the course of the story, he grows and changes more than we usually see in the lead detective in a possible series. He begins the story confident there is right and wrong and nothing else, but he ends it admitting that there are, indeed, gray areas in the world where it is difficult to make a perfectly right choice. (Spoiler alert again) Like Sherlock Holmes in certain canon cases, he chooses not to pass judgement or turn over culprits for punishment, since he is not a member of the police and feels doing so would be more harmful than just. (End spoiler.) By the end of the film, I felt strongly sympathetic toward this Poirot, and I'm very happy to see that there's a sequel planned!
The other stand-out performance here, I felt, was Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard. I've seen her in a handful of other things, but the only one where I cared much for her at all was LadyHawke (1985), which she was quite compelling in. She was actually a bit of a revelation here, as I'd never quite understood why everyone was gaga over her, aside from the fact that she's pretty. But her acting here was superb -- alternately repellent and compelling, and with a fragile hardness underneath everything that, particularly on the second viewing, I found revelatory.
Everyone else was enjoyable. Johnny Depp was obviously having a great deal of fun being intimidating and gauche. Judi Dench could have used more screen time (but I love her, so I always want more), but she was a nice blend of frosty and pensive. It was fun seeing Willem Dafoe again, as I've liked him so much ever since I first saw Clear and Present Danger (1994) as a teen. He was also having a great deal of fun in his role as a pompous, bigoted Austrian professor. And it was delightful to see Daisy Ridley in a period piece. I hope she joins Lily James and Keira Knightley in doing lots and lots of them, because she suited it well.
It's always nice seeing frequent Branagh collaborator Derek Jacobi, though he had a small part with little to do. Josh Gad was much more subdued than I'm used to seeing him, which was a pleasant change. Penelope Cruz felt a little one-note, but I've honestly never really been a fan of hers. The only other cast member I found particularly interesting was Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, who was utterly charming in his short bits of screen time. But everyone was well-suited to their roles, and I enjoyed the entire ensemble.
Is this movie family friendly? Not entirely, as it does deal with a murder, obviously. The murder itself is eventually shown in flashback in a not-terribly-gross-or-detailed way. There's a prostitute in an early scene, though while her profession is mentioned, there's just some innuendo in the scene, nothing shown. There are guns and cigarettes and alcohol. There's a tragic backstory (Spoiler Alert!!) that involves a kidnapped and murdered child (End Spoiler Alert). And there's quite a bit of bad language, though mostly the old-fashioned sort. Older teens would be fine, but not tweens or younger.