Sometime in the '60s and '70s, Hollywood studios started gravitating toward a lazy sort of spectacle film, with stunt casting that featured huge ensembles of known stars, all crowding the screen together at one time.
The very opposite of sinking down into a role, or forgetting the actor you were seeing was actually Paul Newman. These films were often glitzy showcases of a multitude of mostly B-and-C-list movie stars, actors known primarily for TV, or in other realms of sports/showbiz (as in The Cannonball Run, with everyone from Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore to Sammy Davis Jr., Jamie Farr and Terry Bradshaw), or former big-time actors whose careers had already begun to congeal (think It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, with Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caeser, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, and Jonathon Winters).
Murder on the Orient Express
88 Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Tom Bateman
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Rating: PG-13, for violence and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Like watching a particularly grating episode of Love Boat, where all the guest stars get a handful of lines, doing little more than echoing their established brands, before taking their checks and ghosting the set after the minimum number of hours on their contract. At their worst, the cast was entirely constructed out of guest stars, and the story that brought them all together was gratingly dull.
But the original Murder on the Orient Express was a different type of affair. It also claimed a massive, well-known cast (including Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave), only these actors were actually very well regarded; and it also boasted a hallowed director in Sidney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon). Based on the wildly popular Agatha Christie mystery novel, the film was nominated for a plethora of Oscars (with Bergman winning what would be her final Academy Award, for best supporting actress), and remains on the short-list of the best cinematic adaptations of Christie's work.
All of which suggests why a highly regarded thespian such as Kenneth Branagh would be interested in helming a remake -- and not only because, with his portrayal of Master Detective Hercule Poirot, he plucked the most plum part for himself. Like its predecessor, it boasts a fine collection of rare talent on screen, but this is no shameless cash grab: These actors are put to work.
The film begins, deliciously enough, in 1934, with the highly esteemed Poirot spending time in Jerusalem in order to solve a case. So worried about maintaining perfect balance in the world, he repeatedly sends back soft-boiled eggs that are not perfectly even on top, and goes so far as to intentionally step in street dung with his left foot after inadvertently doing so with his right. He is a man of meticulous, nearly excruciating order (at night, he wears a special mustache-guard to maintain the perfect curl off the lip of his abundant whiskers), which, the narrative posits, is precisely why he is so revered as a detective ("If it were easy," he says to a confidant, "I wouldn't be famous").
Desperately needing some vacation time and a chance to read more of his beloved Dickens, he takes the advice of an old scallywag comrade, Bouc (Tom Bateman), and embarks on a trip on the Express, a decidedly luxurious train whose guests are all fabulously wealthy, and/or royalty, along with their various underlings. It's the kind of train where many of the men wear tuxedos to dinner, and stunning fresh crescents are somehow manufactured each morning for breakfast.
In short order, we meet a host of characters -- including the crudely intimidating Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a former criminal turned art dealer, with scads of enemies and a gun with him at all times, and his secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad), who we come to find is embezzling from his boss; a pair of secret lovers, Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), and Dr. Abuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), whom Poirot overhears talking with an agenda of their own; the quietly religious Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), who puts all into God's hands; the mouthy Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a wealthy woman attempting to locate her next husband; the rich, overbearing Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), and her anxious assistant Hildegard (Olivia Colman); a racist Austrian engineering professor, Dr. Hardman (Willem Dafoe), who may or may not be what he seems; and a disdainful Count (Sergei Polunin), and his wife (Lucy Boynton), the barbital-addled Elena.
When their train encounters a bad bit of weather, choking the rails in snow, the engine gets knocked off the track and they are forced to spend the next couple of days locked in each other's company, a situation made even more awkward when the paranoid Ratchett turns up dead the first morning. It is up to Poirot to break the case, one of the more perplexing ones of his career, in time for the train to reach the next station.
As a bit of mystery whimsy, Christie's setup is about as pure and distilled as could be conceived: A group of seeming strangers all confined to tight quarters, each with a conceivable motive to want to take out Ratchett, and a world-famous detective there to have to put all the pieces together. For fans of Christie's particularly antiseptic, exceedingly British, bloodless style, it's like getting a flourless chocolate torte with a fine cheesecake sitting on top.
While it is true that watching the intensely confident Poirot suddenly have to question his own abilities in the face of so many people all lying to him at once is indeed amusing, the film's throwback style -- excepting Branagh's one sustained overhead shot of the blood-stained body of which Christie would likely not have approved -- has its charms and its weaknesses, one of which is an ending that feels as contrived as anything Christie ever wrote -- and would also be absolutely impossible to deduce on your own, without Poirot laying it all down for you.
Still, the film wisely utilizes its quaintness as something of a selling point, a throw-back mystery that is much less about gritty, urban verisimilitude than it is fine champagne sipping intrigue from an entirely different, highly romanticized, era.
It is also made with a certain panache -- Branagh is big on sweeping overhead shots straight from the Hitchcock playbook -- and one gets the relish with which the actors embrace their characters, many of whom are introduced with the classic dramatic head-turning-to-the-camera reveal.
We have all levels here, from Grand Dames (Dench) and multiple Oscar nominees (Branagh, Depp, Dafoe, Cruz, Pfeiffer), to relative neophytes (Ridley, Bateman), but they acquit themselves seamlessly with one another, tied together as they are by Branagh's Poirot, who becomes not only the main protagonist, but also the only character whose arc actually leads to a substantive change in his worldview.
It's a respectable, engaging sort of experience that asks little more of you than to spend some time in the parlor room, sizing up a host of agreeably intriguing characters. As a means of spending a wet, and chilly night, it's certainly not the worst way to go.
MovieStyle on 11/10/2017
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