Friday, November 10, 2017

Mustache Overshadows All-Star Cast in 'Murder on the Orient Express'

And the award for Best Supporting Mustache Goes To...
At this point, re-adapting Agatha Christie books for TV or the movies is the same as re-adapting Shakespeare plays. Almost everyone knows the stories and plots; the fun comes in seeing how new actors, writers, and directors will approach and execute the material this time around.

Kenneth Branagh has famously adapted Shakespeare in the past, but Murder on the Orient Express is his first foray into Agatha Christie's oeuvre, and the result is an underwhelming, albeit beautiful film in which the all-star cast is too often overshadowed by a mustache.

That cast includes Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison, and Johnny Depp as the murder victim (that last one being genius casting, as I'm sure I'm not the only person of late who has had just about enough of Johnny Depp).

Some of the cast shines. Tom Bateman brings a welcome bit of comedy to his role as Poirot's gleefully immoral old friend Bouc; Michele Pfeiffer deserves a full-fledged comeback to the screen; and Daisy Ridley is as charming a 1930's governess as she is a space warrior.

Charmed, I'm sure
But a lot of the usual suspects get lost in the crowd, as can be expected in a cast this size. As Poirot, Branagh is bound to irk diehard fans of the character. Aside from the ridiculous mustache, he chooses to interpret the detective's famous fastidiousness as some form of OCD,  and gives him a mysterious lost love whose photograph he moons over when alone in his cabin.

The last theatrical version of Murder on the Orient Express was Sidney Lumet's 1974 version, which featured an all-star cast of Hollywood legends, including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Richard Widmark, and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. It's a fine film, but I think it being held up as a standard to shoot for owes a lot more to nostalgia and its cast than to the quality of the film itself.

Branagh recognizes the limitations of shooting an entire movie  on a train. It can be claustrophobic and stagey. But the way he tries to liven up the cinematography is hit and miss. While it may seem like he chose a CinemaScopic aspect ratio because only that could properly display the width of his ridiculous mustache, in fact, it also lends itself well to long tracking shots that follow outside the length of the train as characters travel from car to car. There are a lot of moments shot through windows, or decorative glass, breaking the actors faces into symbolic triptychs, and the snowy landscapes and stormy skies are lovely.

More maddening are scenes where Branagh shoots from above, so all we can see is the tops of characters' noggins as crucial aspects of the mystery are discussed. And the film's active camera can't make up for some deadly dull plotting that makes one empathize with those trapped on an unmoving train

For all of Poirot's genius, the central mystery in Orient is not that hard to figure out. Once he guesses the true identity of victim, the rest of the pieces basically fall into place without much actual sleuthing on Poirot's part; it's an odd choice to launch a potential franchise with.

More in keeping with the Poirot fans love is the film's opening in Jerusalem, in which he solves a crime purely based on some scratch marks found on a wall. A trip to the Nile is hinted at as Poirot departs the Orient Express at film's end, and I say, go ahead and take that cruise, Poirot. Just visit a barber first.


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