‘Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press’

The over­stuffed who­dunit comes up a bit short in its nos­tal­gic, posh jour­ney.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG

his with­er­ing 1950 es­say “The Sim­ple Art of Mur­der,” Ray­mond Chan­dler wrote that the so­lu­tion to Agatha Christie’s “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” was so far-fetched that “only a half-wit could guess it.”

You can sort of see Chan­dler’s point even as he misses it en­tirely: The joys of read­ing Christie have noth­ing to do with out­wit­ting her, let alone hold­ing her to high stan­dards of plau­si­bil­ity, and ev­ery­thing to do with sub­mit­ting to the be­fud­dle­ment and in­ge­nu­ity of her puz­zle-box world. Hav­ing been blind­sided by the end­ing of “Ori­ent Ex­press” my­self, I’m re­lieved to note that I am clearly no half-wit — or at least, I wasn’t when I read the novel as a teenager, a happy vic­tim of the au­thor’s lim­it­less abil­ity to sur­prise.

Cer­tainly no one who has read the book or seen Sid­ney Lumet’s mem­o­rable al­ls­tar 1974 adap­ta­tion will have any trou­ble guess­ing the end­ing of Ken­neth Branagh’s creaky but durable new movie: It builds to the same glo­ri­ous gimmick. “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” may be the most con­trived of Christie’s ad­ven­tures fea­tur­ing her famed Bel­gian sleuth, Her­cule Poirot, but it’s also the grand­est — the one whose posh rail­way setting tick­les your travel-porn fan­tasies even as its in­ge­nious con­struc­tion re­veals it­self, layer by layer, as a teas­ingly elab­o­rate put-on.

There can be plea­sure in be­ing told a story you al­ready know, a fact surely not lost on Branagh, who has spent much of his ca­reer re­vis­it­ing old texts and ex­ca­vat­ing fresh mean­ings. This “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” does boast a few dis­tinct, mod­ern­iz­ing touches, no­tably a few pulpy ac­tion beats, a more eth­ni­cally di­verse cast and a height­ened aware­ness of racial and re­li­gious ten­sions that feels more 2017 than 1934. (The pro­logue, which finds our sleuth solv­ing a crime in front of the Western Wall, is not just an in­tro­duc­tion to Poirot’s steel-trap mind but also a plea for in­ter­faith har­mony.)

But for the most part, the movie means to de­liver a throw­back to an ear­lier era of es­capist en­ter­tain­ment and lux­ury travel, to sit­u­ate the viewer in the dra­matic equiv­a­lent of a plush, first­class seat. The im­ages, flu­idly shot on 65-mil­lime­ter film stock by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Haris Zam­bar­loukos, have a sump­tu­ous, Old World charm. The screen­play by Michael Green (a co-writer on the re­cent “Blade Run­ner 2049” and “Lo­gan”) re­mains faith­ful to the twists and turns of Christie’s busy plot ma­chin­ery, not tam­per­ing with it so much as has­ten­ing it along. When the whole con­trap­tion runs out of steam, as it does well be­fore the end, you’re not meant to feel im­pa­tient so much as nos­tal­gic.

As for Branagh, you sense that he spent less time fuss­ing around be­hind the cam­era than putting on a good show in front of it. When it was first an­nounced that he would be don­ning Poirot’s im­pec­ca­ble man­ners and even more im­pec­ca­ble mus­tache, it wasn’t at all clear how he would stack up next to such mem­o­rable past in­ter­preters as Al­bert Fin­ney, Peter Usti­nov and, best of all, David Suchet of the long-run­ning Bri­tish TV se­ries.

In fact, Branagh’s per­for­mance turns out to be the movie’s one fully re­al­ized el­e­ment, the un­nec­es­sary ad­di­tion of a long-ago love in­ter­est not­with­stand­ing. With teas­ing el­e­gance and sup­ple grav­ity the ac­tor brings out not only the de­tec­tive’s men­tal agility but also his very hu­man, ir­ri­ta­ble side, his near-patho­log­i­cal in­sis­tence on neat­ness and symIn me­try. You un­der­stand, on an al­most vis­ceral level, why Poirot can’t abide mur­der and the moral dis­or­der it brings into the world. As for the mus­tache, it’s noth­ing short of a ton­so­rial stun­ner, so big and scene-steal­ing you start to won­der if it should qual­ify as one of the mur­der sus­pects.

I’m get­ting ahead of my­self. The vic­tim is a well­dressed, ill-tem­pered gang­ster type named Ratch­ett, which even those un­fa­mil­iar with the story will guess from Johnny Depp’s scarred face and men­ac­ing scrape of a voice. Ratch­ett and Poirot soon find them­selves aboard the Sim­plon-Ori­ent Ex­press from Is­tan­bul to Calais with more than a dozen other pas­sen­gers, all of whom wind up stranded when the train gets stuck in a snow­drift — a per­fectly un­planned catas­tro­phe that re­moves any doubt, af­ter Ratch­ett is found stabbed to death in his com­part­ment, that his killer is still on board.

The sense of mount­ing sus­pi­cion and para­noia to some ex­tent works against the ac­tors, who never fully mesh as an en­sem­ble — a prob­lem that Lumet cir­cum­vented with his more co­he­sive, leisurely ap­proach to the story. Branagh’s movie, rush­ing to reach its des­ti­na­tion in un­der two hours, gives the char­ac­ters short shrift and un­wit­tingly re­in­forces the story’s class dis­par­i­ties: The A-lis­ters tear into their roles with gusto while the oth­ers, among them Manuel Gar­cia-Rulfo’s bois­ter­ous busi­ness­man, Willem Dafoe’s Ger­man-ac­cented pro­fes­sor and Mar­wan Ken­zari’s per­son­al­i­ty­d­e­fi­cient train con­duc­tor, linger mostly in the shad­ows.

And why not? Stars will be stars, af­ter all. As the gos­sipy, much-mar­ried Mrs. Hub­bard, a role owned by Lau­ren Ba­call in the 1974 film, Michelle Pfeif­fer is a tor­nado of fast-talk­ing silli­ness and late-surg­ing emo­tion. The gen­tle Bi­ble thumper who won In­grid Bergman her third Os­car is now a bit­terly glow­er­ing Span­ish mis­sion­ary played by Pené­lope Cruz, in the process elim­i­nat­ing any need for the novel’s rud­est line (“Poor crea­ture, she’s a Swede”). Judi Dench, honor­ing her con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions to be scowl­ing and im­pe­ri­ous un­der any cir­cum­stances, sniffs her way through the part of an ag­ing Rus­sian princess, while the ex­cel­lent Olivia Col­man has rather less to do as her la­dyin-wait­ing.

Scor­ing a few points for the plebes are Daisy Ri­d­ley of “Star Wars” fame as a sly, eva­sive Bri­tish gov­erness and Les­lie Odom Jr. as the Amer­i­can doc­tor who might be her lover, her con­sort or both. Derek Ja­cobi cuts a proper, gen­tle­manly fig­ure as Ratch­ett’s valet, while Josh Gad stands out as a shifty sec­re­tary, even if his at­tempt to flee sus­pi­cion trig­gers the first of a few il­lad­vised ac­tion scenes.

Branagh may know bet­ter than to mess with a rip­ping good yarn, but he doesn’t al­ways trust it to stand on its own. He also doesn’t seem en­tirely cer­tain where to put the cam­era; I was mys­ti­fied by the de­ci­sion to film the dis­cov­ery of Ratch­ett’s body with an over­head shot of the out­side hall­way, a ges­ture that smacks of clumsy ar­ti­fice. It’s not the only vis­ual de­ci­sion that makes us feel cut off from rather than in­vested in the ma­te­rial, re­duc­ing even the op­u­lent de­tails of Jim Clay’s mid-’30s pro­duc­tion de­sign to the trap­pings of an ex­er­cise.

The most com­pelling an­gle of this par­tic­u­lar who­dunit still comes down to mo­tive. Ratch­ett prob­a­bly de­served his bloody fate, but acts of ret­ri­bu­tion don’t sit well with Poirot, and long af­ter he has ceased pon­der­ing the crime’s lo­gis­ti­cal rid­dles, he is troubled by its eth­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. As cin­ema or lit­er­a­ture, “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” may be lit­tle more than a clever par­lor trick. But in its fi­nal mo­ments, even this over­stuffed, un­der­achieved movie of­fers a morally un­set­tling re­minder that — with apolo­gies to Chan­dler — the art of mur­der isn’t al­ways as sim­ple as it ap­pears.

Ni­cola Dove 20th Cen­tury Fox

DIREC­TOR-STAR Ken­neth Branagh as de­tec­tive Her­cule Poirot with Daisy Ri­d­ley as a Bri­tish gov­erness.

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