UHCL The Signal
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University of Houston-Clear Lake
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Houston, TX 77058
Contributed by Chandler Barton, graduate student & teaching assistant, Department of Liberal Arts
I remember the first time I read one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes shorts in middle school. If memory serves me well it was either Black Peter from the Return or one of the stories from the Memoirs. Doyle’s archetypical Victorian prose coupled with his exciting narrative style and lovable characters had me hooked instantly. It would be many years later during undergrad when I would finally finish the entire Holmes canon, but my fascination with detective fiction blossomed from that first encounter with the world’s most famous fictional detective. It would lead me to Poe’s own C. Augustin Dupin—who Doyle would credit not only as his own inspiration but also “the root from which a whole literature has developed”—and eventually Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, famous in his own right for the sheer amount of appearances credited to his name: more than fifty short stories and nearly forty novels! So, while I haven’t quite gotten through all of Poe (but close!) and have only begun to scratch the surface of Christie, I still consider myself a fervent reader and enthusiast of detective and murder mysteries, even to the extent that I’m planning my third book to include my own short sketches exploring the genre.
I will bashfully admit that I have never seen Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express despite my combined love for the book and nostalgia for older films, especially novel adaptations. But when I found out Kenneth Branagh was recasting the classic earlier this year I was ecstatic for the opportunity to see what him and Michael Green would do with the classic, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
I won’t pretend to be anywhere close to an expert movie critic (this is my first go at reviewing a film at any rate) but I have developed a certain skepticism over the years of professional movie reviewers, especially when doing a bit of data analysis and comparing the aggregate critic reviews with the layman’s. In this instance Branagh’s film barely approaches 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, but scores almost 90% from Google user reviews. While I don’t monitor the numbers on films frequently enough to make any sort of definitive statement, I maintain a hunch that such a wide disparity between the critic and the average movie-goer isn’t all that uncommon. It seems that almost five years later the clamor to emerge out of Roger Ebert’s shadow has still not produced us a guiding voice of reason in film critique.
From what I gather, the crux of the negative reception seems to center on the remake not living up to its predecessor’s legacy. I take immense issue with this reasoning—and not just with Murder on the Orient Express in particular—especially when considering that we’re comparing films across entire generational gaps of actors, directors, and technology. It’s the same struck nerve when I hear the old song-and-dance lamentations about the Star Wars films never being as good as the originals (though J. J. Abrams has been doing a fantastic job of shutting up those voices as of late), at a certain point we have to get off our fatally nostalgic high-horse and give the next generation of cinema a chance. I would also argue to a certain degree that films deserve to be critiqued and analyzed in a vacuum apart from the baggage of nitpicky compare-and-contrast that hazards us towards the absurdity of meshing apples with oranges.
Tangents aside, I feel that Branagh faithfully reproduces Christie’s story with a star-line up of actors with Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp’s performances particularly impressive. It was also refreshing to see Judi Dench still in action despite her recent slowdown in work. The deviations are reasonable and within the limits of cinematic consideration: original cast of characters get shaken up with Dr. Constantine and Colonel Arbuthnot getting combined into a Dr. Arbuthnot, Bouc getting replaced with a younger version of himself (or son, I think) and Greta replaced by Cruz’s character, Pilar. There are also some other slight variations in character’s backstories that presently escape me, but the overall plot and allusion to the Lindbergh kidnapping stay firmly intact.
Branagh also does a wonderful job of balancing action with intrigue. This is a delicate issue when attempting to condense any piece of prose fiction into the two-hour or so timeframe allotted for a movie; too much of the former risks vacating plot and essence while too much of the latter risks losing the attention span and interest of an audience that is traditionally far less amiable to patience than a devoted reader. Character development does come up short in some respects, but certain allowances have to be made given the sheer number of persons and what little time Branagh has to spend on each individual in the wider context of the demands of narrating a murder mystery. I do think this works slightly to the advantage of the film for those unfamiliar with Christie’s novel—the lack of in-depth detail of background and ambiguity of character traits makes it very difficult to predict the crime’s solution, so while you could complain that some characters seem a bit two-dimensional, you certainly won’t be able to roll your eyes at a “saw-it-coming” deadpan ending.
Whether you’re a devoted reader of detective fiction, Christie fan, novel-to-film enthusiast, or anything in between, I highly recommend you give Murder on the Orient Express a try. It was definitely one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and I hope the rumors of a Death on the Nile sequel are true.
And yes, for those of you who haven’t read the book, the great Hercule does find the murderer; but (spoiler alert!) it wasn’t a single person on the train. Haw-haw.
Also published on Medium.