Monday, December 4, 2017

Murder On The Orient Express Movie Review: Star-Studded Remake Of An Agatha Christie Murder-Mystery That Millennial Viewers Today Might Find Too Talky

THERE WAS a time when we were a great fan of Agatha Christie’s mysteries and we’ve read a lot of her books with the Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of Poirot’s most renowned stories and it was first filmed in 1974 directed by Sydney Lumet and starring a powerhouse cast led by one of our most favorite actresses of all time, Ingrid Bergman, as Greta Ohlsson, for which she won her third Oscar, a best supporting actress prize after winning two best actress awards for “Gaslight” and “Anastasia”. Other big stars in the cast then were Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, among others, with Albert Finney as Poirot.

The classic murder-mystery has been remade on TV but now comes another big screen version directed by British actor-director Kenneth Brannagh (“Cinderella” and the first “Thor” movie, both hits) which he not only directs but also stars in as Poirot. Those who’d watch the movie for the first time will be intrigued by the whodunit structure of the story. For those who’ve seen it, like us, we’re just wondering if they would change the ending, which would be difficult to do as it involves so many people. Also, we don’t know if this kind of film would still sit well with today’s young millennial audiences who want more action, unlike this one which is very talky.

Set in 1934, Poirot just solved the case of theft of a religious relic at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and wants to have some rest in Istanbul before going to London for another case. His friend Buoc (Tom Bateman), director of the Orient Express, offers him a cabin on the train where he meets a businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who asks him to be his bodyguard since he’s been receiving death threats. He rejects it. The next morning, he learns that Ratchett was killed during the night. There’s also an avalanche and the train is stranded.

Ratchett has been stabbed a dozen times and there are about a dozen other passengers in the train who Poirot investigates, interrogating each of them. The huge stellar cast includes Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff, Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman, Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados (the Ingrid Bergman role now made Hispanic), Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham, Olivia Colman as Hildegarde Schmidt, Lucy Boynton as Countess Helena Andrenyl, among others.

Upon investigation, Poirot discovers that victim Ratchett is really John Cassetti, who has ties with the Mafia. A partially destroyed letter connects him to the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong. (This part is inspired by the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping that hit headlines the year before Christie’s book came out.)

Daisy was a child kidnapped and held for ransom. The ransom was paid, but Daisy was still murdered. Her mom Sonia died because of premature labor, along with the baby in her womb, while her dad Col. Armstrong committed suicide because of the tragedy. Cassetti turned out to be the mastermind of the kidnapping but he got away with it. The family’s helper, Suzanne, was arrested for the crime and she hanged herself while in prison, but it was later proven that she’s not at all guilty.

This is about as far as we can go. Everything that happens after this will be a spoiler. Poirot’s sharp deduction skills are put to a test and he solves the crime then decides to just keep quiet about it, posing a moral conundrum about his decision. If you want to find out his reason for doing this, then you’d have to see the movie for yourself then decide if you’d agree with him or not.

Since Poirot is the star of the show, it’s Kenneth Branagh who gets maximum exposure in the film. The others get just a few scenes each and Johnny Depp as the unfortunate (or deserving) victim is disposed of quickly in the film’s first half hour.

Since this is a period film, the production design really goes to town in showing us how to travel on a luxury train during that era, through the snowy mountains from Istanbul to Paris, captured evocatively by stunning wide screen cinematography that gives the beautiful visuals an almost epic feel.

If you’re already familiar with the material, then you already know the identity of the murderer but you’ll still find the whole enterprise quite engaging and the whole trip worth taking, simply because it’s so well crafted. We enjoyed the excellent camera work with inventive trackings and top shots, even if the setting is just confined within the train, and also the superb acting of most of the familiar players, notably Branagh who brings heart and humor in his interpretation of Poirot.

Other than him, the others who also make an impression are Michelle Pfeiffer as a faded star (originally played by Lauren Bacall) and Daisy Ridley as the governess (originally played by Vanessa Redgrave.) The ending indicates that the next Poirot movie he’ll do will be “Death on the Nile”, which has also been filmed in 1978 with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.

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