Finney. Ustinov. Suchet. With Murder on the Orient Express Kenneth Branagh now finds himself in tough company with an entrenched legion of fans who have a strong preference when it comes Agatha Christie's world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. If you're unaware of the source novel or have missed any of the previous adaptations of this novel or other Poirot stories, you may come away satisfied. If you have a favorite version of the indulgent and observant detective, you may find this Orient Express altogether garish as Branagh puts himself front and center of all other characters. While you can debate the merits of this film, the Blu-ray is a fine achievement from Fox. Featuring a terrific A/V presentation and a host of worthwhile extras, it's an easy disc to call Recommended.
"There is right. There is wrong. There is no in-between."
Of all the novels of all the characters that director and star Kenneth Branagh could have chosen from Agatha Christie's expansive library of novels, he couldn't have chosen a more controversial one. Controversial not because of the content, but because fans of the novel are fervent and loyal to their favorite Belgian detective and the actor who played him on the big screen or television. Finney. Ustinov. Suchet. Mention one of them as the definitive cinematic Hercule Poirot at a Christie convention and watch the place turn into a violent riot or opinions. If you're a Christie reader and/or have seen the previous interpretations of Murder on the Orient Express, you'll no doubt have a strong opinion about Branagh's more masculine, take-charge approach to one of the greatest murder mysteries ever penned to paper.
He's supposed to be on holiday. After wrapping up a case, he's due for a restful experience of luxurious dining in a peaceful exotic location. When he is called to London to consult on a murder, he reluctantly boards the famed Orient Express in Istanbul bound for Paris. Stuffed in the filled-to-capacity first-class carriage, he sees and meets a host of interesting individuals for him to observe. There is the young and beautiful Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and the handsome Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) who share an obvious mutual attraction. There is the odd Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz) who spends her time lecturing about sin and vice. The Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) who expounds about his countryman's superiority while successful car salesman Beniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) boasts about his wealth. There is the shrill and demanding Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her servant Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) who keep each other's strange company. There is the sultry Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) who holds nothing back when describing her wealth or her numerous former husbands. Then there is the dancer Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his wife Elena (Lucy Boynton). The trio who is perhaps the most curious is the rough around the edges Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his manservant Masterman (Derek Jacobi), and his accountant MacQueen (Josh Gad).
When the train runs into an avalanche and the engine derailes, it is discovered that morning that Ratchett was murdered. Stabbed in fact, twelve times with varying degree of severity and without any pattern. With only suspects, few clues and no motive, he must intercede to solve the case - because no one else can. He is Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), and he is quite possibly the greatest detective in all the world.
Murder on the Orient Express posses a tricky problem for Kenneth Branagh. On one hand, it's a beloved novel with two successful (depending who you ask) adaptations and didn't require a third go around. On the other hand, it's a well-known property to people who haven't even read the book or seen the previous films and offers a strong jumping off point to introduce a new generation to Poirot and his unique methods of detection. No matter how well he made the film, no matter how tight an adaptation, no matter how close to the character he could be, Branagh was in a win/lose situation with Murder on the Orient Express simply because nothing he did could match entrenched expectations.
If you think comic book fans are a dodgy bunch when it comes to bringing their favorite characters to the screen, say the wrong thing in front of a Christie fan about Poirot and you'll catch serious hell. I know, I've been there! I have Suchet fans and Ustinov fans in all corners of my family. I once casually mentioned how I liked Albert Finney, appreciated the comic nature of Peter Ustinov and how I also enjoyed the few episode movies of David Suchet I had seen. You could hear a pin drop. The following conversation raged on long after I quietly and awkwardly left the room.
I mention passionate fan proclivities towards this character because I am a fan myself and I have to admit to my own biases. I've read a dozen of the books with my wife and they're favorites. However, I'm a realist. I believe interpretation is an essential element of adaptation. If every director made Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet exactly the same, there would be no point in watching any new adaptation. If every new Bond was the same as the last there wouldn't be any excitement. To that end, I will say that Branagh makes an amiable Poirot. Yes he's trimmer, leaner, and a bit more physically capable than previous iterations, the character's penchant for luxurious delicacies and personal preference as to taste and companionship are no less entertaining. Perhaps Branagh's French accent push can be a bit thick in places and he may lean a little hard on the comedy to the point of slapstick, but, I'll give him credit to the fact that he is not Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, or David Suchet. This is his Poirot.
That said, as a movie, I found Murder on the Orient Express unfortunately lacking. While it does an impressive job at recreating an old-time sense of scale and grandeur to the production, Branagh can't quite overcome his tendencies to put himself front and center of the action virtually at all times. And to fulfill that need, Branagh's Poirot isn't content to keep the action on the titular train. When the story calls for the dutiful course of investigation and the gathering of facts in order to build suspense and story momentum, the film cuts away to needless grand CGI-enhanced establishing shots that usually feature Branagh walking around the train, on top of the train etc. It's almost as if Branagh simply didn't have enough faith in the source material to hold the audience's attention that these excesses flourish. It loses the necessary build of suspense and claustrophobia and danger by regularly establishing that the killer could be anywhere else but in that first class cabin.
Not helping matters is the simple fact that Poirot gets much more character development than necessary. An admittedly entertaining but needless introduction sequence at the beginning is one new addition to the book that stands out. The most out of place and perhaps the most egotistical element is the inclusion of a lost love interest for Poirot that gives Branagh several opportunities to stop the action dead and chew the scenery in long-winded speeches to the photograph. These moments rob the rest of the ensemble cast of their moments to shine.
With the exceptions of Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, a scene with Judi Dench, and a moment with Michelle Pfeiffer, the rest of the cast is largely wasted. Part of what makes Poirot a great character to read and to watch is his penchant for not injecting himself into a conversation. He sits back and observes and listens to the people around them systematically cataloging their movements and conversations whether he suspects them of something or not - it's just what he does. With Branagh constantly making virtually every scene about himself, some of the best characters get lost. Eagle-eyed Christie fans will no doubt notice a number of character changes - even renaming some - to fit the cast.
As this Orient Express pulls into the final credits teasing another stab at Death on the Nile as the next Poirot adventure for Branagh to tackle, I can't help but express a sense of indifference. I didn't hate this film. But I didn't love it either. I went in with an open mind wanting to experience a new take on a classic character. While I got that new take and I appreciate Branagh's efforts, I'm not completely sold on the idea of a new Poirot-focused franchise. Especially not one where Poirot is constantly front and center of all things. Overall I'll say this Murder on the Orient Express was a fine film, it entertained me, but it didn't blow me away. If anything it gives the world another terrific Patrick Doyle score to enjoy. If you're new to the character Poirot and don't know the big twists of the plot, you should be rightly entertained and have a good time. However, I would still suggest you find the time to check out the original Sidney Lumet Murder on the Orient Express if you want to witness a studied craftsmen build suspense through character development and tight locations.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Murder on the Orient Express arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital set. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the discs are housed in a two-disc eco-friendly case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other Fox releases before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options. The digital copy is redeemable though Movies Anywhere and should port over to all of your linked accounts.
Shot on 65mm and sourced from a 4K DI, this 2.39:1 1080p presentation is a feast for the eyes - at least the items that weren't generated via CGI trickery (more on that in a bit). Most of what is on screen is a splendor of fine details that allow you to soak in all of the terrific costuming and period detailing. From the scar on Ratchett's face to the individual hairs on Poirot's mustaches, everything is on full display. The film's impeccable production design comes through beautifully as you can pick out all of the details in the clothing and period decor that make up the opulent Orient Express and the various filming locations.
Colors are bright, bold, and beautiful veering from the warmer yellow/browns of the opening to the cold blue/gray of snowy winter. Primaries enjoy a terrific amount of pop and presence while flesh tones look even and healthy throughout. Black levels and contrast are in terrific shape as the white snow of the mountains don't blowout or supernova nor do blacks crush or impact detail levels. However, back to that pesky CGI. As this film was shot on large format stock, it's added resolution capabilities frequently draw your eye from the practical and real of any given scene to the weightless and obvious digital trickery. Granted it may be a small gripe, but there are some scenes where the digital and practical work just don't come together and can pull you out of the moment. Aside from that, Murder on the Orient Express is a beautiful looking film on Blu-ray.
As this adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express leans a bit more on the action aspects of the story, the included DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio mix is a terrific accompaniment to the impressive video transfer. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout - even when Branagh gets a tad too thick with his forced French accent. The hustle and bustle of the opening scene with all of the crowd sounds and the terrific Patrick Doyle score creates a wonderfully immersive quality to the film. When the action moves to the titular train, the chug and churn of the massive engine bring a wonderful dense LFE quality to the mix. As the action moves about various train compartments or in the opulent dining car, there is a pleasant low rumbling tone. The big avalanche sequence gets the most surround activity and in spite of the CGI fakery, the audio makes it an exciting moment. Levels are spot on throughout and you're never going to have to touch the volume once you have it at a comfortable level.
Tip of the hat to 20th Century Fox for rolling out a pleasing and insightful assortment of bonus features for Murder on the Orient Express. While a number of features are a bit on the lighter EPK talking head sort and somewhat shill for the new Poirot novels being written, they do offer up some great points about the production and how they brought various aspects to life.
Audio Commentary featuring star/director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Greene, this is a fun and lively conversation as the pair discuss various decisions about adapting the work and their approach to bringing Poirot to a new generation of moviegoers.
Agatha Christie: An Intimate Portrait (HD 19:03) Buttressed by actual recordings of Christie discussing her work, this feature isn't all that intimate, but it does provide a context for her creation of Poirot.
Let's Talk About Hercule Poirot (HD 9:54) More of a companion to the previous bonus feature, this takes a look at Branagh and his team's approach towards the look and presentation of the famous detective compared to other iterations by taking Christie's frequent description of Poirot's facial hair as "mustaches" with emphasis on the plural.
Unusual Suspects: Part One (HD 5:08) This is a quick brief EPK bit of casting discussing characters and the actors.
Unusual Suspects: Part Two (HD 5:56)
Unusual Suspects: Part Three (HD 6:49)
The Art of Murder (HD 16:23) While a bit EPK-leaning, there is a great amount of behind the scenes work to see as the cast and crew discuss bringing the film to life.
All Aboard: Filming Murder on the Orient Express (HD 16:35) This feature offers up a lot more information about the decision to shoot on 65mm over other formats and how it makes for a film with a larger scope and greater attention to detail.
Music of Murder (HD 7:31) This is a great little feature focusing on composer Patrick Doyle's work for the film.
Deleted Scenes: (HD 16:40) Featuring optional commentary with Branagh and Greene, there is actually a lot of interesting material here that I wish had been left in - if for no other reason it would have controlled the pace of the film and helped build some scenes of suspense. The alternate opening, in particular, is a standout. Also featured are some smartly removed comedic bits about Poirot's extravagant nightly hygiene rituals - including an explanation for his "trim" appearance.
Theatrical Trailers (HD 3:36)
When it comes to this latest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, your reaction to the film and Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of the greatest detective in the world will depend entirely on your previous associations. If you've never seen any of the previous movies, the television show, or read any of Agatha Christie's books, I'm sure you'll end up enjoying yourself, or at the very least feeling that this film was a worthwhile ride. On the other hand, if you're an established fan, you may take issue with Branagh's changes to the character and the novel. As for myself, I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it. Familiarity with the material kept this film from feeling fresh and exciting, but at the same time, I did appreciate what Branagh tried to accomplish. When the inevitable followup film arrives I'll probably buy a ticket for a ride down the Nile.
20th Century Fox has delivered an excellent Blu-ray experience sporting a beautiful video transfer, a terrific audio mix, and a host of worthwhile bonus features to pick through. Even though I didn't love the movie, I'll watch it again making this Blu-ray an easy purchase to call Recommended.