Title: Murder on the Orient Express
Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:
Sideshow Bob: The killer is out there. I would stake my entire fortune of cigarettes on it.
Brief Plot Synopsis: After a man is spiked on a train, a famous detective interviews the passengers, attempting to gauge their responses as he engineers a solution so he won't be derailed by suspects a-freight of telling him what they know.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three Shacks out of five.
Tagline: "Everyone is a suspect."
Better Tagline: "Well, except the dead guy."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is looking forward to some well-deserved R&R riding the Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris. As luck would have it, one of the passengers — a Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who previously (and unsuccessfully) tried to hire Poirot for protection against mysterious threats — is found murdered after an avalanche strands the train. Deducing that one of the passengers must be guilty, Poirot races to identify the murderer. Could it be Ratchett's long-suffering accountant (Josh Gad)? The suspicious-acting governess (Daisy Ridley)? The mysterious butler?
Just kidding; there is no butler. There is a valet, though...
"Critical" Analysis: One thing you’ll notice right out of the gate (or the station, if we must continue the railroad puns) about Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is how unabashedly retro it is. Elaborate tracking shots and lingering set-ups, all brought to life by Haris (Denial, Eye in the Sky) Zambarloukos’ lush cinematography, recall a bygone era of star-studded cinema (including, not coincidentally, Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version of the Christie classic).
But it’s not just a loving homage from the director, it's also an opportunity for Branagh to chew some scenery.
Poirot, as written, is fastidious and arrogant, qualities he often exaggerates to mislead his enemies. “Arrogant” is also a modifier often applied to director Branagh, and he clearly relishes the chance to fully embrace this side of his personality. He has some great lines, both at the expense of the others ("Romance never goes unpunished," he tells his randy friend) and the world in general. He's legitimately entertaining in this (the "French" accent occasionally slipping into "Inigo Montoya" notwithstanding, and with the ending of MotOE directly leading into Death on the Nile, Branagh could easily spend the latter years of his career playing Poirot in more movies — not much chance of that in the Jack Ryan universe, alas (RIP Viktor Cherevin) — and that’d be swell.
But an ensemble piece like this doesn’t hold up without support from, well, the ensemble, and they (generally) don’t disappoint. We’ve come to expect excellence from the likes of Judi Dench (coldly understated as a Russian princess), Derek Jacobi (Ratchett's valet), and Willem Dafoe (an Austrian professor), but there are some pleasant surprises as well. Ridley proves she’s not just a Force to reckon with in the Star Wars universe, and Michelle Pfeiffer continues what’s been a nice recent career renaissance following HBO’s Wizard of Lies and mother! The rest of the suspects are mostly inoffensive, though Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin (as Count Andrenyi) should probably ease up on the glower power settings.
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And then there’s Depp. As much discussion as there’s been around separating art from artists (in the last two days alone, oy), Depp is one of those actors whose real-life flaws become harder to ignore the more you hear about them. Which is why it might be a capital time for him to simply embrace playing bastards like Ratchett from here on out. He’s actually pretty damn good at it, with the added bonus of our getting some needed catharsis when he's bumped off.
One of the few aspects of Murder that doesn’t ring true is the seemingly life-altering epiphany Poirot experiences when he realizes the magnitude of the crime. This is a veteran police detective, one who was forced to leave Belgium during the Great War. He’s arguably seen horrors far worse than a dude perforated in a first class train cabin and uncovered many a plot, so why is it only now that he realizes the naïveté of his black/white worldview?
Tonally, the movie sometimes takes itself more seriously than Branagh’s performance warrants. There’s been a murder here, obvs, with what turns out to be a pretty horrific back story. Poirot’s quips and insults provide some needed levity without distancing us overmuch from the crime.
Murder on the Orient Express is a big studio release that doesn’t really feel like one, given that the outlay for acting was the biggest budget item, and the majority of the action takes place on a train car soundstage. But while some of the character introductions are hurried, and Poirot’s deductions can seem a bit, cough, Herculean, it’s a mostly bon voyage.