Thursday, 9 November 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

(M) ★★★½

Director: Kenneth Branagh.

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin.

The moustache's powers included the ability to stop any train within a three kilometre radius.
Movember has its new patron saint - Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot.

(Seriously, you should support Movember.)

But aside from boasting one of the greatest soupstrainers of all time, Branagh has notched up a couple of other achievements with his take on Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express. Firstly, he's pulled together a truly astounding cast that is not only supremely talented but also sure to be invaluable in any game of Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. And secondly, he's done a great job of boosting the Christie estate's annual earnings.

Oh, and he's done a damned fine job of directing this adaptation of the much-loved 1934 murder-mystery novel, sparking new life into a character long relegated to BBC/ABC telemovies.

Branagh also does an excellent job portraying Belgian super-sleuth Poirot, the famed detective whose powers of deduction border on the magical. Here Poirot applies his extraordinary talents on board the titular train after one of the passengers is killed, leaving about a dozen suspects and more secrets than a teenager's diary.

Murder On The Orient Express is a true ensemble piece. Aside from Branagh, no one stands out above anyone else. Everyone gives a fine performance, from Pfeiffer as a sultry "husband hunter" to Gad as a shifty assistant, from Ridley as a no-nonsense governess to Depp as a "legitimate businessman". The cast is quality through and through.

But it is Branagh, as the star of the show, who truly shines. With his mellifluous Belgian accent, he makes Poirot not only a joy to watch, but he also makes the detective a fallible and interesting man. Meticulous but not perfect, serious but not joyless, precise but not heartless, Branagh's Poirot is a fascinating and entertaining creation.

If there are any flaws to be found here, they are rarely the fault of Branagh or screenwriter Michael Green. The majority of annoyances lie in Christie's original story, which is frustratingly old-school in its delivery. Many of Poirot's deductions are made with information the audience doesn't have, which can be OK once or twice, as one might expect in a modern crime tale, but when it happens again and again it can leave the audience feeling short-changed if they are trying to solve the crime too. Holistically Christie's clues and solution hold together well, but just don't try to play along. Instead, sit back and let Poirot do all the work.

As a director, Branagh has obviously grown comfortable with CGI, having handled FX-heavy projects Thor and Cinderella with aplomb. Here his application of computer wizardry is more subtle but no less necessary, augmenting and creating some beautiful scenery and camera moves for the Express' journey across Europe. If anything, Branagh's camera moves are a little too adventurous - while there are some bravura long takes and some intriguing birds-eye-view shots, there are occasions when you wish Branagh would just relax and keep the camera in one place for longer.

Having said that, the film looks spectacular. The use of 65mm film, mixed with some CG enhancements, makes it sumptuous on the screen. Add in some wonderful production design, and the Orient Express itself becomes as much a character as those played by Depp and co.

While there is no end-credit saying "Hercule Poirot will return in Death On The Nile", it is certainly hinted at in the final scene, and given the franchise-friendly nature of Hollywood these days, should Murder On The Orient Express be a hit, a sequel is likely. If it's as good a journey as this one, then book me a ticket.

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