Murder on the Orient Express (2017): A Review

Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is worth watching.

It isn't very good. But it's worth watching.

If anything, the movie illustrates the basic visual problem with the plot's structure. Christie herself never attempted to turn the book into a play, and there's a reason for that. The middle part is Poirot talking to various individuals in an enclosed space.

That's it. "Hi, I'm Poirot. Tell me your story while we sit on a non-moving train."(Like Keen Eddie--"Hi, I'm Eddie. How do you like me so far?"--except Eddie gets to run around London and break up bar fights.)

The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express handles this problem through sheer exhaustive and demanding inside-a-small-space camera work--and the tremendous energy of Albert Finney. The pacing demands attention.

Branagh's version, oddly enough, suffers from too much variety. Slow scenes. Fast scenes. Inside shots. Outside shots. Branagh is a skilled director, so customarily this would work.

It doesn't. The change of pace for the interviews--which allow Branagh's considerable talent to shine (he isn't Poirot to me, but he's Branagh, so he's worth watching)--forces the story of interviewing-people to fall apart. What's happening now? The quick pace in the denouement--which ought to work wonders--brushes over the most heartrending parts of the visual story, such as Hardiman and Michel's reaction to the picture of the French maid; Mrs. Hubbard's quiet, drawling revelations.

Bergman's Third Oscar
Before anyone claims that "movies back then" were "so much better"--the truth is, the 1974 version was something of a fluke (check out other mystery movies of that era and earlier if you doubt me; even The Thin Man sequels drag). The 1974 version really shouldn't have worked and only did for a variety of overlapping reasons, including cameo monologues, audience interest in murder movies (thank Hitchcock for that one), and, as mentioned above, the hectic pace.

Branagh's movie has all the right elements. There are no individual false notes. The cast is excellent if underused. Patrick Doyle's music is, of course, spot on. The scenery is gorgeous. The movie isn't dull, even if weirdly paced. And Branagh, of course, is as good as he is in any movie where Branagh plays someone. The movie is clearly a tribute by Branagh to the 1974 version, so the element of "due tribute" is even there (James Bond doesn't suddenly appear, wielding bombs--like Schwarzenegger at Elsinore in Last Action Hero; yes, I realize some people would prefer that).

Unfortunately, as a million fantasy writers have discovered, you can't simply put a bunch of elements into a bag (elves, swords, wizards, sarcastic people), shake them up, and get a masterpiece.

However, here's an ultimate reason to watch the movie (other than Branagh, Agatha Christie, and hey-it's-only-2-hours!):

Johnny Depp is mind-blowing.


Johnny Depp as a thug was the one "huh" casting choice I questioned. I forgot what a profoundly good actor he can be. As Ratchett, he is phenomenal. Watch it just for him.

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