Saturday, November 11, 2017


I’d love an all-star murder mystery, which makes it hurt all the worse that Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a good one. He takes Agatha Christie’s classic novel (to both direct and star as the persnickety, mustachioed, world-famous detective Poirot) and runs it through the handsome, high-gloss, literary-toned approach that served him so well in the past. He has treated familiar stories from Hamlet to Cinderella with the same tone of high-minded, playfully gorgeous, deliciously melodramatic classicism. They’re reverent, but impassioned, heavy and light in the same moment. But somehow the translation to screen for this latest adaptation is stuffy and slow, every emotion muted, every turn and twist of the whodunnit plot bungled and stumbled in a ham-fisted clumsiness that never lets the puzzle pieces click together with pleasing precision. Instead, amid the fastidious production design of a luxury train lovingly photographed in 65mm and cramped tracking shots of beveled glass and ornate décor, he somehow never gets a good sense of the space. The characters are indifferently introduced; the investigation develops in fits and starts; the space is inelegantly portrayed – a jumble of close cuts and overhead shots that hardly gives us a window into the layout. The lumbering film neglects good mystery development at every turn. 

The story deals with a mystery of a murdered man on a snowbound train full of trapped suspects (including the likes of luminaries Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer, and on and on). Branagh never gets around to cluing us into who is in which compartment, the order of the cars, the timeline of the night in question. Part of the pleasure in a story such as this – understood by Christie and the best of her imitators and adapters – is to follow the clues as they stack up, then hold the big picture in our own heads as the detective tests theories and develops new leads. Here, the screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, a better expensive Hollywood detective story) simply asserts and accrues its mystery’s complications rather than presenting them in a more aesthetically or investigatively satisfying process. I barely had a sense of who the suspects were, let alone where there are on the train or with whom they trade meaningful red herrings. The cast is under-utilized, their star power and screen presence used to substitute or shorthand characterization, the film’s dull crackles of wit and tension carried over as best they can manage as little as they’re allowed. Why such a delicious intrigue is left to fizzle is beyond me. Branagh doesn’t even allow his Poirot more than a somnambulant personality. This prime place for some showboating (and, boy, is he one of our best showboats) is given over to soft, dry cracks and sleepy mumbling. There’s no spark of energy or life here, the big, fancy, unmoving train left stuck in the snow slowly turning away from any inherent suspense and into its own conspicuous metaphor.

No comments:

Post a Comment