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Murder on the Orient Express
★★☆☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express deservedly ranks as one of the celebrated mystery writer’s greatest works. The most well known adventure of Christie’s beloved and enduring character, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, this novel resonates as a touchstone of popular culture—its title recognizable even to those who’ve never picked up the book. Unfortunately for film lovers, Murder on the Orient Express is a tough tale to translate to the big screen, despite its iconic story, picturesque period setting, and cinematic conceit of a train-bound murder mystery. 

The large number of colorful personalities that help make Christie’s book such a terrific read makes for a crowded feature film in which many characters are reduced to bit parts or overblown cameos. The intricacies of the plot and the connections between the characters work like a magic trick in the novel, but the realistic treatment inherent in a movie requires viewers to suspend their disbelief in some rather drastic ways in order for all the pieces to fall into place logically on screen.

Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paul Dehn did an admirable job with their 1974 adaptation, which leaned heavily on its all-star cast (most of them playing versions of themselves), a bold turn by Albert Finney as Poirot, and the extraordinary cinematography from the great Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Superman, Tess).  In the 2017 version, director Kenneth Branagh attempts to one-up Lumet by employing on the same formula as well as updating the story’s details to make them more palatable and accessible to contemporary audiences. The resulting movie makes for a serviceable ride, but hardly the epic journey the filmmakers clearly hoped for.

Branagh is no stranger to building a huge picture around himself in the leading role—see his Henry V (1989), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), and Hamlet (1996)—but his choice to play Poirot shackles this train before it even leaves the station. The handsome Branagh is all wrong for Christie’s diminutive, portly, Belgian eccentric. We never fully accept his comical mustache and Cluesoesque French accent. And while 2017’s Orient Express features a cast just as star-studded as the Lumet film, stars simply shone bigger and brighter in 1974. Instead of Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Perkins all tuned together and playing off each other well, this version sports Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, and Judi Dench, who mostly seem to be acting as if they were in different movies (Dench barely seems to know she’s in this movie at all.) Only Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp bring any fun to these proceedings.

The screenplay by Michael Green (Logan, Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049) drags out much of the action while at the same time condensing so much of the backstory that it comes off as confusing even if you know the story well. The result is a jerky narrative the stops and starts, lunging forwards and backwards in time to spoon-feed you information that you instantly forget.

But the biggest disappointments lay with the production itself. Branagh and producers Ridley Scott and Mark Gordon attempt to make the picture an event by shooting on film in a large format and even rolling it out with a limited 70mm release. But their reliance on CGI and digital color grading make this grand period adventure look as generic as any big-budget HBO series. Granted I was not able to see the film in 70mm (it was not available in that format in most of the US), but unlike Christopher Noland’s recent 70mm releases like Dunkirk and Interstellar, the prints of Murder on the Orient Express were all made from digital intermediates, not optically printed from the original camera negative. When computers process celluloid to this extent it defeats much of the rational for shooting on film in the first place.

Twitter Capsule:
The latest telling of this epic journey plays more like an all-star layover. Michael Green's screenplay muddles Agatha Christie’s great novel by dragging out the narrative and condensing the clever backstories. Branagh uses the 70mm format to paint generic CGI landscapes and shoot endless closeups of himself.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Produced by Ridley Scott, Simon Kinberg, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Gordon, Judy Hofflund, and Michael Schaefer

Screenplay by Michael Green
Based on the novel by Agatha Christie

With: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacob, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley

Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Editing: Mick Audsley
Music: Patrick Doyle

Runtime: 114 min
Release Date: 10 November 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color