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November 13, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

by Franz Patrick


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, is such a stylish-looking picture that certain scenes emit yellowish glow and it is filled to the brim with performers of recognizable faces. However, one gets the impression that it might have been a stronger work had it been three hours long, thus paving the opportunity for the audience to get into every possible suspect’s psychology. Instead, what results is a mildly interesting mystery with some superficially curious exchanges, but certainly not a film that commands first-rate tension and urgency. It is passable as a late-night or rainy day cable movie.

Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a renowned detective with an obsession for detail. The material makes a point that this case is of a particular challenge for the supremely observant detective since he is someone who believes there is only right and wrong. Branagh makes a potentially insular character into someone accessible by expanding upon the more humorous lines through carefully calibrated facial expressions meant to nudge the viewers that there is more to Poirot than solving puzzles and a strict sense of morality. In less capable hands, the protagonist would likely have become one-dimensional.

There are nearly a dozen suspects and some of them are more intriguing than others. Michelle Pfeiffer is a standout as a widow who knows exactly what she wants. She commands attention in just about every scene she is in, mixing sensuality and sexuality with seeming ease. Her performance is exactly right especially when her character must come face-to-face with a detective of extreme logic. Another solid performance is by Daisy Ridley who plays a governess involved in a relationship that she feels she must keep under wraps. Although she does not have as much many lines Pfeiffer, Ridley is able to communicate a level of desperation, mixed with fear, especially when her character is challenged by seemingly straightforward questions.

The rest of the suspects, however, require more time to be thoroughly engaging. While nuggets of mystery are teased, especially by Penélope Cruz and Willem Dafoe as a Spanish missionary and a racist Austrian professor, respectively, these characters do not get the opportunity to shine because the script requires a constant forward momentum. The problem is, although the movie moves at a constant pace, it is not exactly fast-paced. The exposition will likely test the patience of some viewers who crave action almost immediately.

Detective stories thrive on sneaky suspicions and heart-pounding uncertainties. This interpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express” fails to create a level of claustrophobia that functions as a pressure cooker. Notice there are numerous overhead shots of the train and the snowy terrain—beautiful but these do not contribute in establishing the correct tone and mood. Perhaps the director ought to have chosen a more humble route.

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