by Patrick Brandolini
Check out this film review of the newest movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh. FSJ contributor, Patrick unpacks the pros and cons of this new take on a classic.
Ah, Kenneth Branagh, everyone’s favorite classicist. If there were just one man that moviegoers would be willing to shell out $14.50 to see perform the great works of yesteryear, it would certainly be him.
His trove of Shakespeare adaptations remains the only bearable way for high school English teachers to get their students to experience the Bard on film, and for that, we thank him. But Agatha Christie is an entirely different animal, and while Branagh does manage to bring his own vision to this adaptation of her novel of the same name, he, unfortunately, doesn’t bring enough. “Murder on the Orient Express” delivers a faithful retread of the classic novel through the means of modern storytelling, but either fails or refuses to take the necessary liberties to iron out the kinks of the original.
Like a locomotive barreling its way through a metro station, “Murder on the Orient Express” has a hard time justifying its 21st Century update of an inherently 20th Century tale, and the film constantly stalls as if those making it were constantly attempting to plug in and charge a story that clearly runs on coal. The special effects were in fact very special and genuinely made seeing this movie in theaters an immersive experience that has become increasingly hard to find nowadays. The computer-generated snowstorm that engulfs the computer generated, eponymous train looks fantastic on the big screen and I cannot recommend enough that those who wish to see this film do so in a theater, rather than at home. But while the effects crew utilized current technology to update the film’s setting, the modernization stops there, and what we get from a story perspective is shockingly just as flat and generic as when it was filmed back in 1974. What does Branagh bring to this story that no one has before?
No, I’m asking you; please tell me what is different enough about this film that justifies remaking it, because I failed to see any evidence of it.
Of course, there is a reasonable expectation that the ever-faithful Branagh would stick close to the source material, but then why make it? The film comes off as a remastered, special edition of a classic album, only without the additional singles and B-sides that were left out of the original.
I appreciated Branagh’s performance in the lead role, as I always do. He navigates a path between post-modern, self-referential eccentricity and restrained stage acting that very few have mastered quite as well as him. But outside of Branagh and Branagh’s mustache, no actor brings even a hint of personality to the cast, either by a fault of the script or of themselves, but there is not one whose name I can remember only two days after seeing the film. The characters aren’t even treated as murder mystery archetypes, that would’ve been enough had they been given even one defining trait, but they’re treated only as bodies to crowd the railcars so that we can have a real whodunnit on our hands.
I was ready to love this film and gave it all the leeway I could while watching it, and I came out of the theater having enjoyed going to see it. There were aspects of this film that I enjoyed very much, but there were too many missed opportunities to deliver a fun, creative reimaging of a story that is now over eighty years old. There’s no mystery as to what killed this picture: it was the filmmakers, on the set, with the lack of creativity. (5/10)