Published by Epigram online on the 6th November 2017.
By staging its world premiere the day before UK release, Murder On The Orient Express suggested the oncoming reviews would attempt to solve the mystery of what went catastrophically wrong with this star studded adaptation of an Agatha Christie classic.
The film surpasses those expectations, but it is still a farcical and heavy handed spin of a glorious murder mystery.
Stage and screen legend Sir Kenneth Brannagh directs and stars in a billboard busting ensemble including Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, and, of course, Dame Judy Dench. On the red carpet in London, which was followed in our live screening in Cardiff, "the cast" was on everybody's lips, even their own.
"What about the cast?" host Lorraine Kelly, a suitably irrelevant presenter, kept asking all the members. "What about the cast?" she would repeat with her Scottish a's. And even Pfeiffer, a tremendous performer with decades of experience, claimed to be starstruck by Brannagh and Dench. Johnny Depp, as distant and incomprehensible as ever, claimed to be in love with her. Yet Dench was the most underused and underwritten of all the parts as Russian Princess Dragamiroff, her casting quite frankly a name on a piece of paper which only really shines in one moment where she spits at the name of the deceased.
In case you did not realise from the title or have never heard of the eighty year old book, someone has been murdered on a train -- no spoilers here. And, conveniently enough, "probably the world's best detective" Hercules Poirot is on the scene, played by Brannagh. An easy failing of anyone who stars and directs in any project they get their hands on, Brannagh displays unbelievable self-indulgence. The only thing more farcical than his ridiculous moustache is his heavy French accent, deciding against softer, Belgian tones as he drags the case along with his derivative narration within interrogations. The humour revolves around similarly cheap content: mispronunciations of his name and measuring eggs.
It is in the measuring of eggs where we start, and a ridiculous set-up it is. A young boy runs through a crowded Jerusalem, accompanied by overbearing and distracting music, an unfortunate feature of the entire runtime, only to deliver breakfast to our supposed hero. It moves on to a ridiculous case Poirot solves involving an imam, a rabbi, and a priest -- yet more cheap humour. This was the most wasteful of starts. It is supposed to establish Poirot as an intuitive, genius detective, but all it achieves is suffocating the audience with Brannagh's special brand of cringeworthy moments. After an impressive performance in Dunkirk this summer, Brannagh starts this film by reducing himself to a court jester. The dialogue and action continues to frenzied, uncontrolled encounters and introductions scrunched into a waste of a first twenty minutes. The film would have been better for skipping the muddled attempts at exposition and opening on the train. Poirot is such a recognisable character, after all.
There are sections on the train where this movie is wonderful. To begin, the source material by Agatha Christie is a fantastically crafted murder mystery. With several twists and suspects, and layers upon layers of development, a simple murder unravels into a history of crime and past misjudgements from all the passengers of the Orient Express. The better turns of this film, perhaps underbilled, belong to Ridley, Gad, and Jacobi, all of whom elevate their character to humanity above all the other caricatures. Depp also does well, his menace all that is required for his short-lived appearance as Ratchett.
Pfeiffer, as Caroline Hubbard, however, is the real star. She continues her year of dazzling performances, albeit with by far the most dazzling part of the ensemble. She is magnetic. Her wailing tones, her runaway comments delivered with a light touch, her melodramatic claims steal most of the true laughs and drama. While Brannagh improves with the seriousness of the plot, Pfeiffer's, and the film's, best moments are when her character seems most absurd, as she divulges loosely about her quest of husband hunting abroad to an aloof Poirot soon after meeting him on the train.
Despite its importance in the title, the Orient Express could well be the Orient Cruiseship, the Orient Nuclear Bunker, the Orient Supergalatic Spaceship, or any bloody reason to isolate a group of strangers in a room and develop a claustrophobic crime thriller. The scenery is simply white and reminded me of The Polar Express, the avalanche causing the lack of movement equally as realistic as the Christmas cartoon. The great pieces of camera work were inside the train with a Wes Anderson -esque overhead shot of Poirot, Dr Arbuthnot, played by relative rookie Leslie Odom Jr., and the conductor finding the body. Brannagh, however, repeatedly breaks the rules of the single setting premise, ignoring the potential of a interior-based drama to branch outside into the vast white snow and add crass action sequences, losing any tension which managed to survived the crass comedy.
The magnificent reveal, despite being preceded by one of the frankly awful attempts of an action sequence, is performed admirably by Brannagh and Pfeiffer in particular, and finally does some justice to the clever story. But, by that point, the self-indulgence and entitlement of Brannagh, his stars, and the production team has left Poirot, and the film in general, laughable and not nearly as sophisticated as Christie's novel.