Thrill, Warmth, Adventure Aboard the Orient Express

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

If one of the year's most anticipated movies, Thor: Ragnarok, was a let-down, then the less intensely marketed, rather calm Agatha Christie adaptation that somehow made its way to Matti Cinema's screens, thanks to an appearance by Johnny Depp, was a delightful surprise. Almost entirely taking place inside the interiors of a train's carriages, directed with style and acted with care, Murder on the Orient Express is an engaging movie that has inspired Christian Tesfaye to give 8 out of 10 stars

What I would give to re-read the first three instalments of the Millennium Series.

Written with extreme care, where acts even seemingly ordinary, like putting on a dress, or drinking a cup of coffee, are described in detail, Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is the ultimate mystery fiction.

The subsequent David Fincher 2011 adaptation of the first instalment, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starring Rooney Mara in a mystifying performance as the eponymous hero Lisbeth Salander, was likewise a satisfactory film that was engrossing. It paid homage to one of our time’s Agatha Christie-equivalent, Larsson, who sadly passed away after the third novel with a trilogy that would nonetheless last his name generations.

Speaking of Agatha Christie, there is an adaptation of one of her books, Murder on the Orient Express (which shall henceforth be referred to as Murder), screening at Matti Cinema. Forty-three years since the last adaptation by Sydney Lumet, which starred an all-star cast, and highly acclaimed if its six Oscar nominations are proof, the second version does not fare far less.

We open in Jerusalem, where the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), renown for his attention to detail and an overstated up-ward curled moustache, is on a mission to uncover the mystery of a stolen artefact from one of Israel’s sacred sites.

The job finished, (the suspects where a rabbi, a priest and an Imam, thus I thought perhaps they all stole it), Hercule feels the need to rest, conceivably read a Dickens or two, before he receives news that a case in London demands his attention. A friend, thus, offers him a ride aboard the train he is in charge of, the Orient Express.

The title gives away the plot: there is a murder on the Orient Express. It is Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an American businessman whose business is not exactly legal. Before his death, Samuel approaches Hercule to serve as his bodyguard, for he fears his life is in danger. It is on that same night that the American is stabbed several times to death.

How hard can it be to solve a murder on a stranded train, where every suspect or murder weapon cannot go that far, you ask?

Well, sometimes too many suspects and too many motives can be just as befuddling. On the Orient Express is the Austrian bigot Gerhard (Willem Dafoe), the old Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), Samuel’s secretary Hector (Josh Gad), the African-American doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the obnoxious Caroline (Michelle Pfeiffer), just to name a few. The plot thickens, as they say when Hercule finds almost everyone on the train has at some time come across the victim’s path.

Any more plot detail, I am afraid, will be doing a disservice to readers, for what is a mystery movie without its mystery?

That, of course, is a trick question. Even detective movies have to rise above that mere instinct to say, “gotcha”. The greatest thrillers have just as exciting a beginning and a middle as an end. Still, when once in a while a film goes somewhere we do not anticipate as Murder does, it is hard not to be caught off guard and fall in love. What we have to ask, then, is how much audiences familiar with the source material can like it?

Though not one of those people, for I have not read the book, I will presume the film can stand on its own two feet. It may have borrowed the concept, but Murder does an excellent job of bringing to life one of Christie’s most well-known mysteries through creative use of photography, spot-on acting and exceptional pacing.

Most of this is thanks to its lead-actor, Branagh, who also directed the movie. A Shakespeare devotee, he has directed Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Sleuth and, uncharacteristically, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, amongst many, most of which he also starred in. A contemporary pallbearer for Lawrence Olivier, if none of his movies is a masterpiece in the truest sense of the phrase, then his grace and love for storytelling is a redeeming quality.

Like most great fictional detectives – Sherlock Holmes to Christie’s own Miss Marple – Hercule is a strange person, rather clueless, save for his ability to solve a crime, and humane. Branagh full-spiritedly manifests such character traits throughout the movie, using every part of his body and facial expression to create a memorable character much in the same token, I presume, Christie had in mind. It could be that he is in most of the movie’s shots, but he shines luminously in a film that also stars some of the best contemporary actors, Dench, Dafoe and Pfeiffer.

I was less amused by his directing, which is not precisely a criticism. There are two fantastic scenes in the movie. One is an uninterrupted shot in the first act, where Hercule boards the fateful train in Istanbul. The camera, situated outside the train, follows the detective as he makes his way to his cabin, passing through the film’s multiple, colourful characters. These types of shots, though seemingly effortless, which is perhaps the point, are winsome to the eye, but require the military-like precision and coordination of the actors, the cameraman and lighting and sound departments.

Another is a headshot, teasing in its construction, just about the moment Hercule notices there has been a murder. We are never allowed the sight of Samuel’s body in that shot, or even permitted to observe the faces of the characters that find the body. All we get is a bird’s eye view: procedures, drained of emotion. It is one of the moments in the film where Hercule is a professional, still unaffected by the poignant side of the incident, untouched by the characters, as the only character that could objectively find the killer.

If it was not obvious, that, by the way, was a clue.

In many ways, Branagh tries to measure up to Lumet’s 1974 adaptation, which is now considered a classic. This version takes some cues from its predecessor which too starred an all-star cast. There was Albert Finney (as Hercule), Lauren Bacall, the awesome Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, the immensely gifted Vanessa Redgrave and the Shakespearean actor John Gielgud. For all its charm, the present Murder will have a hell of a hard time beating the Lumet version.

Published on Nov 18,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 916]



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