by Brad Nelson 4/7/18
This is a Kenneth Branagh project in which he directs and plays the main character, Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot. This is a movie about the man and his mustache.
I Googled “Belgian mustaches 1910” to try to see what was typical of the era. This one is in the ballpark of the strange thing that co-stars in this movie with Branagh. Here’s a look at Albert Phinney as Poirot in the 1974 movie. Here’s David Suchet in the 2010 production. The latter two men are finicky dapper Belgian gentlemen wearing a mustache. In the case of Branagh, the mustache seems to be wearing him.
I’m going to assume that very few don’t know the general plot of Murder on the Orient Express and thus the ending as well. If you want a spoiler alert here it is: They all did it. The seasoned Agatha Christie fan is thus left to enjoy the characters. There will be no surprises in this one (other than the weird opening scene with Poirot at the Wailing Wall solving a case we don’t know about nor care about).
Branagh is okay as Poirot. The accent and attitude seem right, although they over-do the “finicky” aspect of Poirot. Instead of weaving these characteristics into the story as they go along, they are presented in a more “stop the picture” way. Over-hairy mustache aside, I would not say his portrayal of Poirot is the main problem with the movie. He is clearly passable.
I’ve read several reviews (most of them far more critical than I’m going to be). The sense out there is that Branagh spent too much time filming himself, that there was too much CGI, and that the cast was rather dull. Given that the Mustache probably was getting a percentage of the gross and that Poirot is the man character, watching him work is what this film is all about. The second (too much CGI) is also gratuitous. There are a lot of CGI scenes of the train going through the mountains, not unlike saturation-enhanced scenes you would have seen in Polar Express. Again, objection denied. That didn’t bother me.
The third objection is definitely sustained. In the 1974 movie (although one could say Phinney was an iffy Poirot compared to David Suchet) you had: Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York. The second-tier actors (such as Colin Blakely and Rachel Roberts) fill in nicely as well.
Because there’s little doubt about who-done-it, this movie is necessarily all about the ensemble. Either they are charismatic and fun to watch or they are not. The 2017 movie has a few names that might be big in today’s pop culture but who are not a blip on my radar. But the names I recognize are: Penelope Cruz (awful), Derek Jacobi (badly used and sleepwalking through this one), Michelle Pfeiffer (one of the few who seemed like she belonged here), Judi Dench (dame or not, she’s boring), Willem Dafoe (misused), and I apologize for not recognizing a myriad other names on the list.
I agree with many reviewers who say that the only stand-out in this collection of characters is Johnny Depp as the guy who doesn’t finish the train trip. He’s the bad guy. Oh…wouldn’t it have been a great movie if he had, one by one, murdered some of these other painful-to-watch actors.
I think because this story is so well known, I would have been fine with the plot being completely restructured so that I did not know who-done-it. Still, there are a few gratuitous changes (haven’t read the book) thrown in as it is. Poirot is shot. He’s in a brief fist fight. Poirot gives chase to a character outside the train and down below the trestle bridge. One of the passengers is stabbed as part of the impromptu coverup. But there’s nothing that changes the basic structure.
And where I most suffered from boredom was Branagh’s (as Poirot) uncovering of the conspiracy and the explanation of the “they all done it” plot. This is a plot that even in the best of times (such as the first time I ever saw any production of Murder on the Orient Express) is a stretch. But I think in the 1974 movie, in particular, the conclusion is uncovered at a pace we can keep up with and that seems logical.
In this 2017 remake, it’s just a mess. Too complicated. Too wordy. Too gadgety. Branagh tries to stage a dramatic confrontation at the end with all the participants lined up in a tunnel. And it is indeed better than what has come before. But by this time the movie had lost me. I just didn’t care. But for the first 35 minutes or so (a recurring theme in movies these day), it was watchable.
One other note, and I mention this only because I was so pleased to see another cinematic PC radar detector in operation. There’s a black doctor in the cast and we’re never able to forget that he is black. One reviewer writes:
What the heck was Branaugh thinking? The only thing worse than dumbing down and sexing up the story with psychopathic violence and creepy lechers was the hitting- you-over-the-head-with-oh-so-unsubtle white savior references to the terrible evils of RACISM!!! Please, someone save us from Hollywood white male liberals bending over backwards to be politically correct about race and thinking they are sooooo progressive while maintaining the worst female madonna/whore lampshade character tropes and adding stabbings, guns, fist fights and shootings not in the original story.
The PC parade started early in this movie when Branagh’s Poirot gave stop-the-picture close-up praise to a fellow named Mohammed. Religion-of-peace message received, Ken.
But this kind of stupid virtue signally, if anything, provided some entertainment value (if unintended) for a movie that was otherwise lacking it. My suggestion is to go back and re-watch the 1974 classic. Don’t waste time on this one.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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