Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Rating:

WORKING ON THE RAILROAD

Main Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp

Director: Kenneth Branagh

The production company has moved our rehearsals for my new Second National Tour of Hello, Dolly! out of

Hay bale by Cjp24

I didn’t even know you could have a bale of hay delivered.

Manhattan to a place with a somewhat cheaper rehearsal hall.  I offered to put everyone up at my lovely home in Los Angeles, Casa Maine, but the producers claimed that they needed the money it would have taken to fly everyone cross country to pay for a grand opening night party when we have a glorious first performance in Bismarck next month.  I hadn’t realized KFC catering had gotten quite so expensive.  Therefore, the whole company has moved way uptown to the Yonkers Hampton Inn where we get a free breakfast, wi-fi, and are rehearsing in their conference center.  The ceilings are a little low, so I have to practically bend double when I make my entrance down the grand staircase for the title number.  We’re also having trouble storing the hat shop and the train in the hallway, so the set changes are rather interminable in the first act.

I must say I am rather pleased with my fellow castmates.  The producers have hired the best and the brightest that the great white way has to offer.  How they landed such a great star as Jeffrey Anderson from The Sun Also Sets to play Horace opposite me I’ll never know. I feel so honored to be in his august company, even if he does go on and on about needing to have a hay and feed salesman’s hands to better understand the part.  He spent the last lunch break in the parking lot with a pitchfork and a haybale from the local Home Depot to make sure he got all the callouses in the right spots.  The supporting leads are all relative newcomers but they’re excellent, especially the divine young man playing Barnaby, who goes by the unlikely name of Polar Bear.

We’re now two weeks in to our four-week rehearsal period and the majority of the work is staged.  Fortunately, I’ve kept my legs in shape and my major tap solo during Before the Parade Passes By is a thing of beauty.  I was quite fatigued after the third time through, so I decided it was time to take a break.  I retired to my room, broke open the mini-bar, poured myself two mini Jack Daniels and flipped through the pile of DVDs I purchased on my last run to Target.  My choice was the remake of Agatha Christie’s famous Murder on the Orient Express which I had missed last fall.  I had been a great fan of the cycle of all-star Christie mysteries made in the 70s and 80s and I hoped that this would recapture some of the grand style of the best of those.  I was disappointed.

Agatha Christie was the queen of the British mystery novel for nearly five decades and, during her long and varied career, produced a number of classic plots, many of which have been dramatized over the years for film, television, and stage.  Murder on the Orient Express, which she wrote in the 1930s, is a classic whodunnit in that a murder is committed in a confined environment and a limited number of suspects are in a position to be guilty of the crime.  Suspicion falls on each in turn until eventually, the brilliant detective assembles the suspects and explains all.    This same story got the major motion picture treatment in 1974 with Albert Finney as the detective, Hercule Poirot, and the suspects included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar), Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins and Michael York.  Forty years later, Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) dons Poirot’s famous moustaches and delivers less than sparkling dialogue from Michael Green’s screenplay.

This film starts, for some reason, in Jerusalem at the wailing wall where a priest, an imam, and a rabbi are suspected of a theft.  (Yes, I know it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke and it plays that way too.  I think it’s supposed to introduce us to Poirot’s eccentricities, but it just comes across as majorly lazy writing).  Then we’re off to Istanbul where Poirot boards the famous Orient Express train across Europe along with assorted other aristocrat types and their servants, all heading across Europe for France and England.  Somewhere in the Carpathians, there is an avalanche and the train is stalled in a snowbank.  One of the passengers, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), tries to hire Poirot to act as body guard for the duration of the journey; Poirot, taking a dislike to him, refuses and it is no surprise when he turns up stabbed to death later.  As the train has been isolated by the avalanche, the culprit must be one of the other passengers.  Could it be the valet (Derek Jacobi), the aging Russian aristocrat (Judi Dench), the ditzy American socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer), the unhappy missionary (Penelope Cruz) or the German Doctor (Willem Defoe).  All is eventually explained in an icy train tunnel.

The film has several issues.  First and foremost being Branagh’s miscasting of himself in the lead role (plus the horrible and out of period facial hair he sports).  He’s a decent actor but he just isn’t right for the part and his mannered performance throws the film off balance.  The second is just some poor writing.  The plot isn’t the issue, but the decision to add a whole lot of extraneous off the train business takes us away from the claustrophobic nature of the crime scene and the rather decent cast of actors that have been assembled to play the suspects.  We want more Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench and less throw away moments such as Adam Garcia, of all people, getting in a nonsensical bar fight and then disappearing. The third is the current generation don’t bring the old style of Hollywood glamour that the 1974 cast was able to conjure up, just by virtue of being who they are.

In general, I enjoyed the film, but felt it could have been much better with a screenplay that was more trusting of the source material.  There was really no need for them to spend as much time off the train as they did.  Branagh is a competent director, even if he does have a penchant for arty shots of snowscapes.  He pulled some of the same tricks in his Hamlet 25 years ago.  I half expected Rufus Sewell’s Fortinbras to pop up and start declaiming.  Most of the suspects are pretty good, but as the actual mystery only takes up just over an hour of a two-hour film, they don’t get a lot to work with.  There is some odd casting, such as Leslie Odom Jr. in the role originally essayed by Sean Connery and he seems a bit at sea when stacked up against all the veterans in the older age roles.  The production design and costumes are serviceable, but are missing the over the top Hollywood look that created a sense of otherworldly fun in the previous cycle.   The film ends with the promise of a remake of Death on the Nile.  There are so many Christie novels that haven’t had big budget film treatments yet that I wonder why they haven’t chosen one of those to continue the series.  Even with its obvious flaws, it’s entertaining and more literate than the umpteenth superhero movie of the month.

Less than perfect egg.  Boot mark.  Istanbul harbor.  Kidnapping flashbacks. Cyrillic N.  Kimono in suitcase. Gratuitous shooting in the snow.  Grumpy soldiers. Back stabbing.

photo by Cjp24

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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