Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

“Who stands to benefit from the crime?”

Despite how visually resplendent and beautifully captured Murder on the Orient Express looks – especially considering these lavish images were shot on celluloid – I couldn’t keep myself from wondering what it would have looked like had it been shot in Black and White. Maybe instead of a backdrop painted with an Icy Hot palette, the focus could have been shifted onto creating especially colorful characters. Told like a 1950’s mystery with the bombast and epic scenery of a Baz Lurhmann masquerade, Murder on the Orient Express shamelessly entertains, but it also feels derivative, dressing its classical elements in an ornate yet gaudy modern male romper. A lack of stylistic cohesion keeps both successful sides from working together as one.

Early on, a man (Johnny Depp) is found dead in his cabin. Apparently the victim of a random stabbing. Then towards the end of the film, all of the passengers exit the train and wait in a tunnel while the engine is put back on the tracks. Where do these chairs and tables come from? We have not a clue. And yet there they sit, replicating and however briefly mimicking the stances of the Twelve Disciples in Da Vinci’s painting of “The Last Supper.” Jesus is missing though, and as you’ll see, he’s represented by the all-knowing and world-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), standing in front while once and for all trying to determine who committed the titular act. Murder on the Orient Express gives scenes to all of its possible assailants, but like in the Bible, only Four Apostles really matter.

Those four are played by the likes of Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Michelle Pfeiffer. I’d tell you their names if I remembered a single one, as well as their professions if the job descriptions seemed to matter. They’re simply the most greased cogs who allow this paused train to continue running smoothly. Kenneth Branagh – who writes, directs, and stars in this attempt at a prestige picture – really steals the show with his performance as Poirot, and yet I still marginally prefer Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel. Branagh has proved that he’s great at converting pieces of theatrically based writing into grand moviegoing experiences, especially when it confidently says lines such as, “to a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.” Lumet, on the contrary, had a better hold of his story’s overall progression. The new Murder on the Orient Express is so inventive and sweeps through the train with such photographed grace that the candle burning at the center is blown out. Branagh’s picture has better acting and is more entertaining while Lumet’s stab at the material is more intellectually involving and reflective of the narrative.

Whether it was direction from Branagh or came as an inspired choice by the cinematographer, a handful of particular shots illustrate the best and the worst decisions behind this feature. A number of times, as Poirot dives into the investigation to get his hands dirty, the camera looms from overhead. Ostensibly, the effect is meant to polarize the viewer even more; to add an unnecessary level of confusion and to muddle this Moscow Mule to death. The shot looks good, but you have to ask yourself, “What does this add?” The answer is nothing. Murder on the Orient Express shines bright like a fake diamond, aiding and abetting a crime that’s a knockout to look at while you overindulge and get tipsy on its splendor, at least until it ends in a state of conceptually numb crisis. Be cautious when you wake up, because in reality this whodunit will just barely meet your intellectual standards. My biggest criticism is simple: tell me less, show me more.

“There is right and there is wrong. There is nothing in between.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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