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'Murder On The Orient Express' Moves In Inspired Fits And Starts

Nov 10, 2017
Originally published on November 13, 2017 8:54 am
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This is FRESH AIR. Agatha Christie's "Murder On The Orient Express" was filmed in 1974 by Sidney Lumet with an all-star cast featuring Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery. Now it's been adapted again, this time by the director Kenneth Branagh, who heads up a similarly star-studded cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In "The Simple Art Of Murder," his 1950 takedown of English detective fiction, Raymond Chandler sneered that the solution to Agatha Christie's "Murder On The Orient Express" was so ridiculous that only a half-wit could guess it. I'm relieved to learn I'm not a half-wit. When I first read the novel some 20 years ago - the first of many Christie's I would devour as a young mystery fan - I was blindsided by the ending, a happy victim of the author's limitless ability to surprise. Only when Hercule Poirot assembled the suspects in the dining car and laid out his conclusions did the story's intricate mosaic of implication snap into place.

No one who has read Christie's book or seen the popular 1974 film will have any trouble guessing the ending of director Kenneth Branagh's handsome new adaptation. This "Murder On The Orient Express" does sport a few distinct modern touches, notably a more ethnically diverse cast and a sensitivity to racist attitudes that feels more 2017 than 1934 when the story is set. But the movie, fluidly shot on 65 mm film by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has a sumptuous, Old World charm.

Michael Green's screenplay stays faithful to the twists and turns of Christie's busy plot machinery, not tampering with it so much as hastening it along. The result isn't an especially vital or imaginative rethink of the material, but it doesn't have to be. It's creaky but durable entertainment that moves in inspired fits and starts, always ready with a droll line of dialogue or a clever visual flourish when your attention starts to wander.

As for Branagh, you sense that he spent less of his time fussing around behind the camera than putting on a good show in front of it. He plays Hercule Poirot himself, a risky decision that pays off. I wasn't sure at first how Branagh would fare next to memorable past Poirots like Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and, best of all, David Suchet who played the famous Belgian sleuth for 25 years on British TV. But Branagh sinks into the role immediately. He emphasizes not just Poirot's mental agility but also his very human, irritable side, his near-pathological insistence on neatness and symmetry. It's why he can't abide murder and the moral disorder it brings into the world. Branagh conveys all this beautifully, even saddled with a French accent and a gray-white mustache so scene-stealing you start to wonder if it qualifies as a murder suspect. Those whiskers get him recognized early on in Istanbul by an English governess named Mary Debenham, played by Daisy Ridley of "Star Wars" fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS")

DAISY RIDLEY: (As Mary Debenham) I know your mustache from the papers. You're the detective Hercule Poirot.

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Hercule Poirot) Hercule Poirot - I do not slay the lions, mademoiselle.

RIDLEY: (As Mary Debenham) Mary Debenham, monsieur. I'll forget a name but never a face - not yours anyway.

BRANAGH: (As Hercule Poirot) You come from Baghdad?

RIDLEY: (As Mary Debenham) It's true. No detail escapes his notice.

BRANAGH: (As Hercule Poirot) Your ticket.

RIDLEY: (As Mary Debenham) Ah.

BRANAGH: (As Hercule Poirot) I might also ask you if you enjoyed your time there as a governess. The chalk on your sleeve and the geography primer - a governess or a cartographer - I made my gamble.

CHANG: Both Poirot and Ms. Debenham will soon find themselves on board the Orient Express, making their way from Istanbul to Calais in the company of more than a dozen other passengers. There's the gossipy, much-married Mrs. Hubbard played by Michelle Pfeiffer with more exposed nerve endings than Lauren Bacall brought to the role. Penelope Cruz turns up as an intense Spanish missionary. Judi Dench is all scowling imperiousness as the Russian princess Dragomiroff, though the superb Olivia Colman is disappointingly given less to do as her lady's maid. The male passengers include a German-accented Willem Dafoe as an eccentric professor and Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot, who may have a personal connection to one of the other passengers.

Most unpleasantly, there is Ratchett, a man with many enemies played by Johnny Depp with a scarred face and a voice of gravel. Before long, Ratchett will be found stabbed to death in his compartment shortly after the train gets stuck in a snowdrift, stranding the passengers and making it clear that the killer could not have escaped. And so at the insistence of the train line's excitable director played by Tom Bateman, Poirot takes up the investigation, interrogating the other passengers and gradually untangling a web of hidden identities and uncanny coincidences.

The sense of mounting suspicion and paranoia to some extent works against the actors who never fully gel as an ensemble. But individually, they rip into their roles with gusto. Josh Gad is especially good as Ratchett's shifty secretary, an early suspect whose attempts to escape triggers an ill-advised action scene.

Branagh, well-versed in the challenges of opening up Shakespeare for the screen, tries to punch up the material with pulpy action-movie beats. The early scenes of the train barreling down treacherous mountain paths play like outtakes from the Ice Age thriller "Snowpiercer." He trusts Christie's story enough not to alter it too drastically but not enough to let it stand fully on its own.

The most compelling angle of this particular whodunit remains its motive. Ratchett, it turns out, was a remorseless criminal who more than deserved his bloody fate. But acts of retribution don't sit well with Poirot. And long after he has ceased pondering the crime's logistical riddles, he is troubled by its ethical implications. "Murder on the Orient Express" may be an ingenious parlor trick, an elaborate put-on. But in its final moments, Branagh's movie offers an unexpectedly stirring reminder that morally speaking the art of murder isn't always as simple as it appears.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The Los Angeles Times.

On Monday's show, Father Greg Boyle talks about his work as the founder of Homeboy Industries - cafes, bakeries, groceries, diners that hire former East LA gang members and people released from prison to help them start new lives. We'll also talk about how and why he became a Jesuit priest and what it means to him to find God in all things. He's written a new memoir called "Barking To The Choir." Hope you can join us.

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