Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Murder on the Orient Express" (2017)

I missed out on seeing this in the theater, but I've seen it twice on DVD now.  The first time, I liked it okay.  The second time, I found it fascinating.  As generally happens to me, the first time I watch a movie, I'm just there to understand what's going on.  The second time through, I start to dig into things like the subtext and meanings and really notice nuances in the performances.

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.

22 comments:

  1. I loved it! The cinematography was gorgeous.

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  2. Mmmm... Manuel Garcia-Rulfo! I knew there was a reason I wanted to see this more than just for Branagh. I do love everything about his style of directing as well. You summed it up nicely. I'll let you know after I've seen it, so we can compare notes.

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    1. DKoren, I think of you every time he's on screen, heh. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it!

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  3. I really loved this movie. It was quite excellent when I saw it and I loved the mystery and period-ness of it. XD Lovely review!

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    1. Florid Sword, yes, they really did a great job of turning an iconic story into a beautiful movie, didn't they?

      Glad you liked my review :-)

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  4. I love it even more now that I'm reading the book. The costumes and sets were beautiful. Thanks for sharing it with me :-)

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    1. Mom, that's great! I knew when I watched it the first time that you were gonna reeeeeeally like it :-D

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  5. Have to admit I wasn't really impressed with this version. Maybe my love of the older version tainted my opinion from the start. But now that it is on DVD, and my library is sure to get it, I'll give it a second chance

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    1. Quiggy, I must admit I haven't seen the older version :-o Just has never crossed my path. I love a lot of people in it, though, so I definitely want to see it at some point!

      Good for you for being willing to give this one a second chance :-)

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  6. The hubby and I caught this at the theatre on New Year's Eve. I am a fan of the book and the 1974 all-star film and wasn't sure what my reaction would be to this version. I found it engrossing, beautifully set, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Brannagh's Poirot. Looking forward to my second time around.

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    1. Caftan Woman, what a neat time to see it! I really wanted to see it in the theater, but between holiday business and me getting obsessed with seeing Thor: Raganarok in the theater as often as possible, I just missed it. Now I'm regretting that, cuz it had to have been gorgeous on the big screen.

      Like you, I was not expecting to like Branagh as Poirot so much. I've never been a huge Poirot fan (ducks all the copies of Christie's books that will be lobbed in my direction), but I really liked him in this.

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  7. I've been wanting to watch this for quite a while! The cast looks impressive and the movie itself looks really beautiful. My pastor's sons have seen this and really dislike it (because they prefer a different version of Poirot and say that Branagh hogs the screen) but I'm not buying their opinion. ;)

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    1. Eva, I think you might dig this. I've seen I think the Suchet version of Poirot a time or two (I'm assuming it was him -- it was some version on PBS in college, so I really don't remember), but Poirot has always kind of irked me a bit because he's fussy and picky... but Branagh made him understandable and likeable underneath the picky fussiness.

      But if one just wants a Poirot who is fussy and picky and not also human and vulnerable and awesome, I can see how one might not like this version ;-)

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  8. *happy sigh* Your review reminded me just how much I love this film . . .

    My siblings didn't really like it; but, to me, it was PERFECT. I loved the colors--especially the abundant use of blue and brown, those are my favorites to see in a movie, I think. I loved how "clean" everything looked, without being "fake," if that makes sense. (Like, clean but not artificial?) And the acting, like you said, was stellar.

    Michelle Pfeiffer blew me away, particularly at the end. WHOA. Branagh was exactly how I'd always imagined Poirot to be, so that pleased me muchly :D :D And I agree, Daisy Ridley absolutely needs to be in more period films! She has quite a talent for it.

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    1. Jessica, I think it helps that I've never been a Poirot fan before? So I went into this with expectations about enjoying the actors, but not about portrayls, if that makes sense?

      And yeah, it was a very clean, tidy, streamlined movie in so many ways.

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  9. Oh well, Rachel, most of the time I so totally agree with your reviews and what you think of films (especially the ones with "our" Alan Ladd). But alas, for once I have to TOTALLY disagree: this Orient Express film runs out of steam very quickly IMHO. All star cast – yep, but do they get a chance to live and breathe? Nope, with the exception perhaps of bad guy Johnny Depp. The other big names are wasted. The super star is of course Branagh himself – or, wait, no, the biggest star of this painful flick is the fuzzy wuzzy thing Branagh glued to his upper lip – this ocean of whiskers's got oh so nothing to do with the dapper Christie detective's French – sorry, Belgian – moustache. I'm a great Christie fan, having watched the (far superior) Albert Finney film and the British TV series with THE ultimate Poirot, David Suchet. It gives me stomach cramps to watch how Branagh butchers Christie's excellent work. He emotes so much, I get a headache watching his histrionics. Instead of focussing on Poirot's observational skills, he rants and bellows and even rolls around in the snow with a "foe" – plain ridiculous. He's Poirot and not James Bond. Christie's Poirot places a big handkerchief on a park bench before he sits down, lest his dapper suit gets stained. He'd never physically fight with an opponent. (This feels just so wrong and un-Christie.) And then the C.G.I. – hey, the train stuck in the snow is enough. Why the rickety bridge, all C.G.I., giving everything an air of inauthenticity? Why do the passengers have to assemble in a mountain cave seated at something which looks like a bad copy of da Vinci's last supper trestle table? Rachel, NO blasphemy intended here from my side, on the contrary, but I'm not the only one who was reminded of da Vinci's fresco (and disgusted by that allusion), and again, for me, this pushes the film even more into the region of an overblown vanity project. – Ooops, I had to be very direct, sorry – I've watched part of the film yesterday on TV and was even more disappointed than the first time. Okay, I'm a Christie fan, have read almost all her books, have given talks about her life and work, and have seen practically all the big screen and TV versions of the better and the lesser known Poirot stories. Well, you wrote you never were a Poirot fan, but believe me, even the fussy and picky and at times arrogant Poirot as for example played by Suchet can be very, very human and vulnerable (for me even more so than Branagh, whose acting in this flick, sorry, I found not only histrionic but plain hammy at times).
    *Sigh* – the first time we disagree! Let's agree to disagree sometimes... ;-) (Anyone who disagrees with my views is of course welcome to tear my arguments to shreds!)

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    1. Andrea, so interesting! I think that the words you used to describe David Suchet's Poirot are exactly what I had always been told Poirot was supposed to be -- fussy, picky, and arrogant -- and that idea of him was a big turn-off for me that made me not really enjoy the books either. But a more robust, active, but still very particular and cerebral Poirot interests me deeply. This is very likely simply because my taste in heroes tends toward the more active -- I love Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe, but find Miss Marple tedious, for example. And I definitely was predisposed to like this version since I'm already a Branagh fan.

      I do actually think they staged the finale to look a bit like the Last Supper on purpose, to draw out this idea of a traitor in their midst, but in reverse: they are all guilty, they all have a secret betrayal of sorts they're trying to hide. I didn't find it so much blasphemous as just using a well-known piece of artwork to evoke a particular theme.

      So, yes, I think we must agree to disagree. Which is fine. My best friend and I frequently have very opposite reactions to movies, and yet, we've been friends for 15 years :-)

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  10. I understand your point of view, Rachel. I'm just such an enormous Suchet fan, I bought all the DVDs of his Poirot cases, and I'm not a very great Branagh fan, so I, too, was probably predisposed to dislike this version! Ah well, it happens... – You may like the fact that Dame Agatha Christie herself heartily disliked Poirot! She never thought he would become so popular, and she would later have preferred to write books with other protagonists. She often expressed her dislike and just had to "churn out" (her words!) more Poirot novels, very reluctantly, because publishers and readers demanded more!

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    1. Andrea, you sound a bit like me with the Jeremy Brett portrayal of Sherlock Holmes :-) Although I do enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., and a few others in the role... Brett is IT for me, really.

      Also, speaking of Sherlock Holmes, that's so funny about Christie not liking how popular Poirot was, because Doyle hated that everyone wanted to read his detective stories and not his important historical fiction. Did Christie kill Poirot off eventually, like Doyle did to Holmes?

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  11. Here we agree again, Rachel, I have some Brett DVDs and find him top notch and absolutely classy as Sherlock Holmes. Yes, Doyle wanted to kill Holmes off (in Switzerland, of all places, at the Reichenbach Falls, where some Sherlock aficionados put up a memorial plaque), thus shocking the Holmes fanbase so much that the author had to give them back their hero... Agatha Christie would certainly have liked to bump off the annoying Belgian, but her publishers probably talked her out of it. She wrote "Curtain: Poirot's Last Case" some time in the 1940s, put it in a safe and had it published 30 years later, as the last novel before her own death. As a critic once said, it's a dazzlingly theatrical finish for Poirot. The novel is quite dark, with startling plot twists. So she managed to kill him off in the end!

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    1. Andrea, a few years ago (okay, maybe 8 or 9), my husband and I gave ourselves the full Brett series as a mutual Christmas present, and it was one of our wisest purchases. We have enjoyed them over and over. We'd seen probably 75% of them before, having gotten them from a library n the early days of our marriage when we lived by a library that had many of them. They're such a treat to revisit.

      I love that story of Christie having her revenge at last! How funny. Thanks for sharing it -- I'd never heard about that!

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