'Orient Express' loses steam despite accomplished acting

Film earns six of 10 'golden spikes' from magazine
RELATED TOPICS: INTERNATIONAL | RAILFANING
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Looking for a great movie featuring a train? If so, then consider avoiding the cost of a theater ticket for the most recent incarnation of "Murder on the Orient Express." See the film if you were going to see a movie anyway, because there are high points and good acting, but it lacks greatness.
OrientExpressLead
A screen image capture from a video trailer of "Murder on the Orient Express" posted to YouTube.
20th Century Fox via YouTube
First, the movie

Based on Agatha Christie's 1934 murder-mystery novel, the 2017 version of “Murder" features stage and screen actor-director Kenneth Branagh ("Valkyrie," "Dunkirk," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") as a fastidious and finicky, yet relatable version of Agatha Christie’s celebrated detective, Hercule Poirot. Screenplay and plot quirks that other critics pan, such as Poirot measuring his breakfast eggs to make sure they are the same size, are actually charming "Sheldon" moments for railfan moviegoers who know of times when they or their friends have done similar things and for the same inexplicable reasons.

The movie opens on Poirot in Istanbul, Turkey, in need of a return trip to London to consult on an important case for the British government. He's just solved a case involving a priest, a rabbi, and an imam (no joke) and runs across a morally dubious acquaintance who happens to be in charge of entertaining wealthy individuals on the Istanbul-Paris Orient Express.

In short order, Poirot encounters passengers who'll be on the train, a physician played by Law & Order: SVU alum, Leslie Odom Jr., and a young female acquaintance played by Daisy Ridley ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens")

Poirot is nearly accosted by Michelle Pfieffer's skillfully deceptive American flibbertigibbet character. And on it goes with Branagh meeting one personality after another in a star-studded line-up including a soon-to-be-murdered American gangster art dealer played by — who else? — Johnny Depp.

Before then, though, there are disagreements among passengers in the dining car, uncomfortable glances, and the awkwardness of living for a few days in close quarters with complete strangers — or are they strangers? Hmm.

Without giving away further details, the lead-up to the murder was appropriately confusing. The audience experiences everything in the third person either watching or standing next to Poirot.

And this is where the storytelling gets detoured off the mainline. As you'd expect, Branagh as Poirot looks for clues, investigates the murder scene, and hits it off well with encounters with Pfeiffer, Judy Dench as a Russian princess, and an unexpected plot twist with Willem Dafoe playing a lying Germanic professor.

But the writing lacks energy. It could be either an edge-of-your seat experience or a eyes-wide-open cerebral whodunit, but ends up trying to be both and accomplishing neither.

I confess to nodding off once somewhere during what I think was a Leslie Odom interrogation and getting a sharp elbow in time for a chase sequence.

Branagh ends the film with Poirot doing what he claims he would not: compromise his principles.
OrientExpressfolow
A screen image capture from a video trailer of "Murder on the Orient Express" posted to YouTube. This image shows the Orient Express marooned on a trestle in an avalanche.
20th Century Fox via YouTube
Now the train

We know that at least a few of the cars from the actual Orient Express were used to film scenes for the movie and that in an interview with The Guardian, Branagh, who also directs the film, said he rode a modern version of the train and wanted audiences to “feel the snow, and smell the steam.”

Mr. Branagh, we know people who could have helped you accomplish this. Please ask us to introduce you next time.

The train station modeled in Istanbul appears to be nearly full of people jostling about for exactly one train: One 4-8-2 locomotive (from appearances) and four passenger cars carrying about 20 people. Sorry, that's a bit much to ask.

The train itself has a sleeper, a lounge, and a diner, and apparently, one other sleeping car we do not see the inside of — and nothing else. Exact consists for 1930s Orient Express trains are less available in English than I would like, so I can't vouch for the movie's accuracy on this point. I can only say that the movie is consistent in that there are few passengers on a short train.

The passenger cars, or carriages, look opulent and inviting, as do the originals that appeared in London for the film's U.K. premiere.

But somewhere in the snow-covered mountains of Yugoslavia — which in the movie resemble a cross between the mountains imagine in the Polar Express and those that appear in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth — an avalanche of snow descends to the mainline below, derailing and nearly burying the locomotive.

For the next two or three days of movie time, passengers remain relatively comfortable and worry little or nothing at all about the cold. Never mind that coal-fired steam heat from a locomotive would be gone by that time (and possibly unsafe to keep connected) or that onboard heaters would likely have run out of fuel.

Who cares? There's a murderer to catch.

Critics have pointed out that the rescue train from an unfrozen village depot in a valley below seems unlikely. And I agree. Imagine this: A crack luxury express train gets stuck in the mountains only to be rescued by a large hand-car staffed with almost a dozen track workers with shovels and hand tools. The thought is plausible in the 1880s, perhaps, but incredulous by the 1930s. It also insults Yugoslavs who would have at least had horses or mules if not a whole train available to do the job. But it supports the necessary delay for the film to proceed.

As I said above, what the film gets close to right is "train life": Cramped quarters, minor inconveniences, the option to read a book while watching the scenery pass, and the omnipresence of train staff. True, there would be a sleeping car attendant in addition to the conductor, and the dining car kitchen would have been much smaller than what we see, but the limited roles doled out are at least congruous to the story — whether you like the story or not.

Bottom line? Actors and actresses in this film give performances worthy of their star statures, but the story and train lack. I give this six out of 10 "golden spikes."

"Murder on the Orient Express" is now playing throughout the U.S. It is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

More information is available from 20th Century Fox.

Steve Sweeney is Trains' associate editor for news and technology. He cuts asparagus and green beans to equal length before cooking, just as Poirot might — and for the same reason.
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