Doesn’t the title just fill your mouth, whet with aperitif for the classic showcase mystery before you? Whether you fear or fear not what the title suggests, Murder on the Orient Express is most expressly as you believe it will be.
The film itself is not so rompish as its star, Agatha Christie’s most estimable faux-Frenchman, Hercule Poirot, given life by a Kenneth Branagh so nestled into the role you may fail to recognize him under two layers of whiffing moustaches. His gait is quaintly powerful, as though he is secretly on a first-name basis with the powers that move people’s actions but has no control over his own. His blue eyes cut remorselessly like a judgmental sky, whom you can hardly blame for acting within its nature.
The Orient, on which this mystery man hopes to holiday away from the world that insists on needing him, is trans-generational, featuring a gradient of performers all calibrated to Poirot’s center of gravity even before they do, inevitably, need him. From Willem Dafoe approximating a German to Penelope Cruz approximating a maid to Judy Dench stretching no imaginations as a frowsy curd whose gaze would cure mustard, the train certainly carries cargo with the promise of becoming precious. But the cogs it winds up never outgrow their clock: the plot remands wit to the backstage of Branagh’s eyes and the film lulls almost indefinitely as soon as the mystery begins.
Sometimes a film experiences a perfect confluence of means and medium. The presence of Dziga Vertov as both cameraman and director in Man with a Movie Camera was propitious, recombinant: it made of a role in personnel a change in the spirituality of the picture. Kenneth Branagh directs himself as Poirot hoping, I suspect, to enact such a coordinate of performance and control, to move through the film as its master of reality on both sides of the fourth wall. As the detective who demands his world to maintain its scales of balance, he might desire to see this sort of film as Poirot sees the world: “as it should be.” But his world falls behind his pen, lags behind his gait. He forces himself onto a world that seems to have no seat with which to accommodate him. Perhaps, though I am loathe to say it, we’ve just outgrown this sort of story.
Poirot has a tone, for instance, of one whose chief pleasure is to see humor in the world in direct and opposite proportion to how much he believes is in it. This results in Poirot/ Branagh propelling themselves through a largely humorless film in which the main character insists that humor exists which only he can see. He misses both the black nonsense of the straight-faced Clue and the tenacious verve of the better Austen films like Love and Friendship. He does so by aiming for both. Perhaps Christie is no Austen, but Orient is begging for some caste quarrels and culture hang-ups, some sense and sensibility. It mentions race occasionally but seemingly only to cause conversations to ring “1920s” to the crowds, as one would step on a sensor pad to open a door.
Wes Anderson has the power to make spectacular oddities seem mundane, even mining the craggy Dafoe for sensitive black humor formed practically into a foil on the rest of his career. Branagh contrarily seems not to know which elements are mundane and which arousing. He misses the chance for some real curdling wit but debilitates the film whenever he attempts to swerve in some action, such as in a brief and shaky chase through a construction awning, wherein one shot does not lead to the next and everything is clumsily obscured. Anderson is no more an action director, but he would know to hang on a long shot, purse the lips of the action for its meaty sarcasm and jolt its banality into a fantasy of realness. Branagh shakes the camera, misses the point, jumbles the space. I would not expect Poirot to be over-handy in a gunfight; so I would not predict Branagh’s sudden competency in exploiting it on camera.
But the two of them share a heart that beats for the old-fashioned serial mysteries. Orient is not derailed by such action, as the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. Branagh does not ham Poirot into a self-parody as Steve Martin did Jacques Cousteau. I’m convinced Orient will be $5 in bargain bin oblivion in a short year’s time, and that we will see no collector’s tin Blu-Ray boxes with Poirot’s commentative sass on the second disc. But this film could be your hearth in the autumn months, especially if you are of that mind that the best films are the least offensive: romantic cheese, as it should be.
“Romance never goes unpunished,” says Poirot. Neither does nostalgia. The problem is that even the things Orient does well it cannot do better than they’ve been done before – the steam by which the film goes, the love of a known formula, cannot take it over the hill created by the same formula. The ending does provide a necessity – a foil for the form – but it comes on the coattail of a mostly witless recreation of English comic mysteries, a bunch of talented skin with a line or two each and no skeleton to hang from. Dialogue swarths with plot-relevant items and drowns in them. I can’t help but consider that a film without a murder, in which the great Poirot must navigate an even murkier challenge – inhabiting space with other people – would make for a cleverer time.
In that case, all these hearty performances wouldn’t fall on such plot-proactive ears. Michelle Pfeiffer lilts as an aging party girl; Daisy Ridley sends sparks from her eyes like every word is an exciting new discovery. Josh Gad expends considerable energy to not be funny. Perhaps Orient could have accommodated him at his best instead? Johnny Depp plays a sullen-faced art dealer whose career is turning down even before he’s killed. And that’s just too close to the truth if you ask me.
Orient is a film swaddled in talent and bustling with production design that manages the formidable task of being forgettable. It comes down to the script, which should be rambunctious with sterling wit and indelible cracks of rhetoric. But it’s rusty, this old train, and tried. There are so many worse reasons to visit a movie theater and many of them involve Sherlock Holmes. But without knowing his illustrious history, would anyone know the breadth of literature associated with Hercule Poirot after watching him in Orient? Will a new generation adore the fastidious mystery man as the people in his own sooty world, hanging on his every word, as though he really is the man who says “cut” and “action” in his universe? Perhaps so, after a quick adventure to the bargain bin.
Cast & Crew
|Michael Green||(screenplay by)|
|Agatha Christie||(based upon the novel by)|
|Hercule Poirot||Kenneth Branagh|
|Pilar Estravados||Penélope Cruz|
|Gerhard Hardman/Cyrus Bethman||Willem Dafoe|
|Princess Dragomiroff||Judi Dench|
|Edward Ratchett/John Cassetti||Johnny Depp|
|Hector MacQueen||Josh Gad|
|Edward Henry Masterman||Derek Jacobi|
|Dr. Arbuthnot||Leslie Odom Jr.|
|Caroline Hubbard/Linda Arden||Michelle Pfeiffer|
|Mary Hermione Debenham||Daisy Ridley|
|Hildegarde Schmidt||Olivia Colman|
|Countess Helena Andrenyi/Helena Goldenberg||Lucy Boynton|
|Pierre Michel||Marwan Kenzari|
|Biniamino Marquez||Manuel Garcia-Rulfo|
|Count Rudolph Andrenyi||Sergei Polunin|
|Sonia Armstrong||Miranda Raison|