Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I love a good mystery.

And this is a good mystery.

I have to admit that I have never read the source material.  And that may have affected my enjoyment of the movie.  Part of the power of a mystery is having the audience play armchair detective as they attempt to figure out the clues before the hero.  If I had known the ending already, I don't think the movie would have had as much of an impact.

Murder on the Orient Express is an adaptation of the classic novel by Agatha Christie.  It's director and star Kenneth Branagh portrays Hercule Poirot the world's greatest detective.  While in Israel, he finds he must hurry back to Europe.  His friend Bouc, who owns the Orient Express (Tom Bateman) bumps into Poirot and offers him a last minute ride when one of the passengers does not show up.  While on the train a shady man named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) knows of Poirot's reputation and tries to hire him.  Ratchett shows him evidence that someone is trying to kill him.  Poirot declines because of Ratchett's criminal reputation.  The next morning Ratchett is found stabbed to death and Poirot most go through a eclectic group of suspects:

-Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi): Ratchett's butler
-Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfiefer): a flighty widow.
-Hector McQueen (Josh Gad): Ratchett's personal secretary
-Antonio Foscanelli ( ): a well-to-do driver
-Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley: a young governess
-Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.): a former military doctor
-Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz): the quiet religious missionary
-Count Rudolph (Sergei Polunin) and Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton): a mysteries couple
-Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench): a snobbish aristocrat
-Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Coleman): the attendant to the princess
-Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe): a racist Austrian.

As you can see Branagh has to manage not only an incredibly large cast of suspects but let each of these very talented actors shine.  And he does so with excellence.

I have been a fan of Branagh since I first discovered him.  He is able to get great performances out of his actors, but he is also incredibly skilled with the camera.  The train compartments are very tight and tend towards claustrophobia.  But Branagh not only sets out the geography and boundaries of the train beautifully, but he constantly comes up with new and creative ways to film this small space.  This is no easy feat, but he turns the train cars into their own little world.  I found myself completely immersed in the mystery and the environment.  My eyes were glued to the screen as I tried to pick up every nuance and every hint.

The script by Michael Green does a good job of showing off Poirot's deductive prowess at the beginning of the film in a fun little mystery.  This is of critical importance as we proceed on with the story and watch Poirot untie the knots surrounding the murder of Ratchett.  Branagh is able to efficiently establish this large cast of characters and set them each into a unique space.

Branagh's performance works well as he begins to slowly peel the mysterious layers away to reveal the truths he finds, even if he doesn't like them.  Branagh plays Poirot as a man whose power is his burden.  He sees things even when he doesn't want to.  This has led him to the constant pursuit of the truth.  It is difficult to comment on the other performances without giving away some of the mystery.  Suffice to say that some people are not what they appear and the actors all do an admirable job showing us the many sides to their characters.

What begins as a murder mystery also becomes moral mystery.  As a detective, Poirot must only discover the cause and perpetrator of the crime.  But as a man, he must deal with the moral implication.  The movie builds to this Gordion Knot that threatens to break even Poirot's righteous mind.  The movie wants to be about larger issues like justice versus vengeance.  And it brings them up admirable in the context of solving the murder of an evil man.  Is it murder if the person killed deserves it?  The rational answer is obvious, but the movie really wants you to wrestle with that question.  Branagh, to his credit, pulls you as an audience member into the quandary and makes you feel for the other perspective.  The conclusion will be satisfying or unsatisfying based on your own world view.

I was actually disappointed when the movie was over and I wanted very much to see Poirot's next adventure.  If you love good murder mysteries with strong visual technique and excellent acting, see Murder on the Orient Express.

image by Yasir72.multan

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