Intrigue, murder, doubt, cinematography and a compelling cast come together in Kenneth Branagh's remake of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh also stars with an original take on Belgian detective Hercule Poirot that manages not to mimic David Suchet, Albert Finney or others who embodied the fastidious, mustachioed flatfoot. If this film births a new series of Poirot films, it would not be the worst thing for cinematic mystery fans. 3 out of 5.
After solving a Jerusalem crime involving "a rabbi, a priest, and an imam" (no, seriously), Hercule Poirot is summoned back to England post-haste for another mystery, interrupting his planned respite in Istanbul. He books last-minute passage on the famed Orient Express for what promises to be a restful 3-day journey... until the man in the next compartment turns up dead with multiple stab wounds. Complicating the matter is that the deceased, fearing for his safety (why?), had tried to hire Poirot as a bodyguard only to be turned down. Now that the train has been stopped by an avalanche, all the passengers are in danger since a murder implies a murderer. Or does it?
Christie adaptations like this one or And Then There Were None all rise or fall on the strength of their ensemble cast. Standouts other than Branagh here include Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz and Derek Jacobi. We won't worry about the names of their characters in this spoiler-free review. Branagh and his cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot this film in 65mm and it shows, giving the film a look and feel that is simultaneously retro and vivid. Branagh adds to Christie's story and builds some creative sets (no stuffy single-cabin interrogations here) while keeping the film under two hours. It's all very smart and very wise.
The mystery? Younger generations who haven't studied their Christie have the upper hand here; I envy their journey of watching this film without knowing whodunnit or why. But there's just enough different here to hold the attention of us older fans.
There's a lot to keep up with, and sometimes important plot elements are introduced which we would have absolutely no way of knowing about. It's all part and parcel for the way Christie told the story, but it defies what a lot of movie mystery fans enjoy - the experience of trying to solve the crime ahead of the detective on screen. There might be a little overacting and scenery chewing going on, but I found that part of the fun. "Fun," however, is an odd term in a murder mystery - why is Murder on the Orient Express so lovely to look at and not-very-scary? Overall, the film doesn't have a lot of flaws, and it's a nice throwback moviegoing experience keeping with the period piece format, but it's not exactly rave-inducing.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Poirot tells another character early on that "There is right and there is wrong." Nothing in between. That notion may soon be challenged for him and the audience. Justice, truth and peace are all major themes that Poirot and other characters will have to define and re-define for themselves. We learn that murder fractures the soul... for more than just the murderer. One character is a missionary who likes to say things like, "Sin doesn't agree with me" and to judge others for drinking. There's an opportunity for post-viewing debate about the value of capital punishment, too. Poirot describes God as "always busy."
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
- Language/Profanity: "Hell"; Several uses of damn, paired at least once with 'G-d'; "bloody". Some slurs are spoken against blacks, Italians and Jews, but we come to find out these comments are part of a character one of the passengers is playing.
- Sexuality/Nudity: One character is with a prostitute when we meet him in Istanbul; a female passenger is flirty with Poirot, talks of her ex-husbands and insists she knows what it feels like "to have a man in my room."
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: The murder scene is shot from above and the bloody corpse is viewed, but it's never very disturbing. In fact, another weakness of the movie may be that a palpable sense of dread and fear is missing, even when other characters are suddenly stabbed or shot; one character's criminal past involves a horrendous crime.
Drugs/Alcohol: Barbital and alcohol are both major players in the case, used and discussed frequently; wine, champagne and brandy are all consumed; one character smokes a pipe.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Anyone desiring a change of pace from most of what occupies multiplex screens these days. Branagh has directed a well-edited film full of colorful scenery and period-piece moments. The film ends with a strong possibility of another Poirot story about a certain death on a certain river in Egypt. If we get that movie, I'll be in line on opening night for that one, too.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Amateur detectives. This is one murder mystery that, even if you've managed to sequester yourself from the source material and previous film adaptations thereof, one won't be able to solve ahead of Poirot because the story just isn't told that way. That said, it's not hard to follow the plot or understand the accents, the narrative doesn't drag and there are no graphic assaults on sensitivities, so it's not likely there will be many haters of Murder on the Orient Express 2017.
Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, opens in theaters November 10, 2017. It runs 114 minutes and stars Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman and Lucy Boynton. Watch the trailer for Murder on the Orient Express here.
Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for Crosswalk.com and the co-host of ChristianMovieReviews.com & CrosswalkMovies.com's Video Movie Reviews.
Publication date: November 9, 2017
Image courtesy: ©20thCenturyFox