Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

(2017, Rated PG-13) Tom Bateman (Bouc); Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot); Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados); Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman); Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff); Johnny Depp (Edward Ratchett); Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen); Derek Jacobi (Edward Henry Masterman); Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot); Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard); Daisy Ridley (Miss Mary Debenham); Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel); Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt); Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Andrenyi); Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez); Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Andrenyi). Music: Patrick Doyle. Screenplay: Michael Green (suggested by the book by Agatha Christie). Director: Kenneth Branagh. 114 minutes.

Tags: Remake, Mystery, Avoid-At-All-Cost

Notable: Single most idiotic portrayal of Hercule Poirot in the history of the known world (Branagh); sets are better than the actors.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Having solved a case in Istanbul, the famous Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot is recalled to England for a consultation. Securing travel on the Orient Express — the famous train that runs from Istanbul to Paris — Poirot finds himself embroiled in a mysterious murder. With the train snowbound, the murderer must be one of the passengers in the main coach… but which, and how? Poirot must engage his “little grey cells” to solve one of the most complicated crimes of his career.

In 1974, a genuinely all-star cast of actors first brought this amazing Agatha Christie novel to life. This film is the third remake and, although I’ve not seen the other two, I’m prepared to suggest that this is the single worst version of the four. I give it one star instead of zero exclusively because the sets — the interior of the train — were excellent. The rest is utter crap.

I have admired Kenneth Branagh for many years, appreciating his work in many fine productions, from dramatic comedies such as Peter’s Friends to the intense and brooding Wallander in the series of the same name. In 2007, however, he perpetrated the literary rape of the brilliant Anthony Shaffer play (and film) Sleuth. Bringing in Harold Pinter to write a new screenplay “based” on the original play (in much the same way that the rock of Gibraltar could be “based” upon the head of a pin), Branagh proceeded to destroy anything the least bit good about the original. In the same way, his “rethinking” of both the story and the characters of Christie’s book makes me question if the man has lost his ability to think at all. (I’m told that he will be allowed to rape and pillage Death on the Nile in 2019.)

Anything remotely resembling the character of Poirot has been subsumed by Branagh’s ego. Start with sporting a grotesque moustache (and tiny goatee as well — the horror!) that would have made the real Poirot run screaming from the room. Continue with the idiotic notion that Poirot — a long-since retired Belgian policeman and inspector, indicating his age to be far from “spring chicken” qualification — would voluntarily and blissfully prance across the top of the snowbound train car, then engage in a merry chase through the trestles and scaffolding of a bridge perched across a mountainous chasm, like some damned action hero… ludicrous! Add that, at one point, he gets shot in the arm (when Christie herself avoided any use of firearms whenever possible), and you have an action thriller mold thrust upon a character whose canon defies any such attempt.

The script is no better and, in many ways, is significantly worse. Without providing any spoilers, I can say that the intricacy of the whodunit, howdunit, and whydunit of Christie’s novel can be perplexing in its presentation. The 1974 movie took the liberty of putting together a sort of prologue during the first several minutes of the film which, as the film progresses, gives the viewer a chance at solving one of the most perplexing mysteries ever devised. More damning in this version, the reason for the murder and the motive(s) for the murder are lost in an intentionally-created muddle that prevents a logical leap for the deed to take place.

Characters are treated no better. In the book, the motivation and links between various characters are, in many ways, cleverly buried; in this film, they are explicitly concealed. The character of Col. Arbuthnot (turned into Dr. Arbuthnot here, and supplanted unnecessarily by playing the race card, without benefit or reason) has a clear connection to the case, in the book and in the 1974 film; here, the connection is tenuous at best. Likewise, the character of “Pilar Estravados” (“Greta Ohlsson” in the book and earlier film) is nearly useless in moving the plot forward, despite her having a particularly important role in other incarnations. (Could Branagh be playing another race card, putting Penélope Cruz in the role and rewriting the character for her ethnicity? I sincerely hope not.)

The best scene, despite it not providing all of the necessary clues that the exchange should have brought about, is between Branagh and Johnny Depp, where at least the dialog is reasonably sensible and the location (the dining car) accurate enough to make sense to Poirot’s original character. The most fun performance is that of the Green Goblin himself, Willem Dafoe; I can’t say why without providing a spoiler, but he’s worth watching.

All in all, a failure of monumental proportions. This film is the cinematic equivalent of rewriting Mozart’s Don Giovanni  in the atonal style of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which I reviewed in this blog with, I hope, vitriol equivalent to the material I was covering. I recommend a long rest for Mr. Branagh, preferably away from any filmmaking equipment or scriptwriting materials. Until one can make a clear and thorough research of one’s subject, one shouldn’t be attempting such a horrifying departure from it.

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