“Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) Film Review

The classic Hollywood style mystery successfully pulls into the station. Grab your ticket from the box office and board the legendary Orient Express with this all-star cast. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the timeless Agatha Christie novel is as bold and elaborate as Hercule Poirot’s famous mustache. Feel as though you are traveling aboard the famous transcontinental train as you attempt to put all the pieces together to solve the mystery right along with “quite possibly the greatest detective in the world.” Hollywood style movie mysteries are nearly a thing of the past, but Branagh stokes the fire in the engine of the once popular genre and conducts an exciting journey through the classic whodunit plot. The film’s namesake is a novel that has inspired so many mystery novelists, and hopefully this film inspires a new generation of filmmakers to create their own movie mysteries fit for the big screen. Because the 1974 version including a cast ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Anthony Perkins to Sean Connery has not stood the test of time as well as it was thought to have done, this cleared the tracks for Branagh’s adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel.

After he successfully solves the mystery of the theft of precious religious artifact from the Wailing Wall area of Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is beseeched to head back east to solve another mystery. Over the years, Poirot has made many friends, and one of these friends is the son of the railroad tycoon who owns the opulent Orient Express. When a passenger doesn’t show, Poirot is given his seat and boards the transcontinental train bound for western Europe. Although Poirot was promised a rail journey free of crime, a nice break, and to be pampered during his travels, he finds himself solving the most peculiar of mysteries–a most gruesome murder. The victim: an unscrupulous man with many enemies. When a freak avalanche forces the Orient Express to stop on a breathtaking, precarious stretch of track, Poirot finds the time to interview each and every one of the suspects—confined to the twelve first and second-class passengers who might have had access to the victim’s cabin. When each piece of evidence opens one Pandora’s Box after another, and the web of lies and connections between the passengers grows to Poirot’s mustache proportions, Poirot faces a complex mystery that prompts him to call his very approach to crime solving into question.

Nevermind the solution to the tentpole mystery novel is one of the worst-kept secrets in British literature history, Branagh crafts a cinematic mystery full of intrigue, revenge, lies, deceit, and the central murder. The plot revolves around a seemingly perfect crime committed on a railcar with no access to the outside, and only the passengers and crew on board the suspects. But even Poirot is stumped at the who, how, and why. Whether you know the ending or not, this film provides an excellent example of a genre that harkens back to Hollywood’s golden era. There was once a time that mysteries and musicals were a staple of the industry, but times change. Still, Branagh shows audiences that the timelessness of an old fashioned whodunit cannot be overstated. Since the ending of the mystery is known by so many people, Branagh was challenged with providing the audiences with something different, something that creates a new take on a well-known story. He accomplishes this by throwing in some additional subplots, character connections, and evidence that suggests that the solution may turn other otherwise than it does in the novel. The changes he brings to the story are organic and fit in well. The end result is a fantastic film that keeps your attention from beginning to end, even for those who know–or think they know–the solution to the mystery.

From the sweeping landscape shots of the Alps to the wide variety of shots to bring the audience onto the train with the rest of the passengers, the production design is excellent. The attention to the detail and visual elegance of the story are treated with creative precision, just as the Christie plot is woven together. Production designer Jim Clay’s meticulously recreated Orient Express is truly something to behold. Unfortunately, despite Branagh’s decision to shoot on 65mm film, there are times that the train set feels almost too perfect–a little artificial–similar to The Polar Express. Although there are times that the production design is not being showcased to the degree that it should to increasingly immerse the audience into the world of Poirot, there are plenty of beautiful shots that serve as a testament to the opulence of rail travel that once was. Of the few weak areas of this film, the cinematography is the weakest because it could have been used to truly create a visually stunning film and not fall victim to surrealism. Patrick Doyle’s score complements the film by feeling like an extension of the plot itself, in time and space. The combination of big band, jazz, and orchestral music immerses the audience into this world. All the technical elements work effectively to transport you from your seat to a compartment on the legendary train.

Branagh’s screen adaptation of Christie’s characters is brilliantly entertaining and developed well. Each character represents a different type of person, a different walk of life. No two characters are alike, which makes great for interjecting some social commentary into the mystery. From a professor spouting pro-Nazi sentiments to a nurse turned missionary, you will find the characters intriguing in and of themselves, never mind how they may be connected to the victim. Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are perfect appointed extensions of the characters that wear the authentic period clothing. Each costume was designed to be as much a part of the respective character as the accents, hairstyles, and backstories. Josh Gadd proves that we can successfully play a serious role, which will prove to bolster his career, Willem Dafoe is perfect as the professor, Dench portrays the princess in only a way that she could so successfully accomplish, and the rest of the cast are all excellent. Coming in a close second to Branagh’s screen time, as the iconic inspector Poirot, is the beautifully talented Michelle Pfeiffer as the widowed heiress Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall’s character in the original). She truly showcases her talent for adding depth to the characters she plays in order to make them complex and memorable. The diverse cast of characters is incredible to watch and couldn’t have been deleted better for this highly anticipated film.

Climb aboard The Orient Express for the whodunit that started it all. Branagh’s fresh take on the classic tale would satisfy even the harshest of critics Agatha Christie herself. He treats the source material with the respect it deserve, all the while, adding in new material to craft a new experience for those tho have read the novel and/or seen the original film adaptation of this story. Do yourself a favor and don’t ask anyone whodunit, because you need to experience the solution for yourself. Perhaps you can solve it more quickly than Poirot. Don’t let the train leave the station before you pack your bags and travel back to a time when trains went full-steam ahead into adventure and intrigue.

“Dunkirk” film review

Journalism meets cinematic visual storytelling. Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk provides audiences with a different kind of war movie experience. Different in that the narrative is nonlinear and highly experimental. From a technical perspective, the film is flawless. The cinematography, sound design, and score all work together to create an immersive experience in which that fourth wall is nearly removed. One of my friends that I saw the film with last night described it as being a fly on the wall within each timeline. With little dialog, the focus is on the various groups of the army, air force, and civilians. The stylistic film reminds me of photo/video journalism. Dunkirk demonstrates that an emotionally satisfying experience can be delivered without conventional storytelling. In many ways Norma Desmond would be proud of Nolan’s film because “[he] didn’t need dialog, [he] had faces.” Dunkirk invites audiences in for a rare glimpse into the reality of war, and the reality of not only the armed forces but the civilian assistance that truly made the difference and just why this particular war story is so remarkable. Be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the events of Dunkirk before watching the film. You’re definitely going to need to have a base of knowledge of the theatre before becoming the proverbial fly on the wall.

Instead of a plot synopsis, here is what Wikipedia has as a summary of the history of Dunkirk Evacuation. This is definitely going to be helpful prior to watching the film.

During the Second World War (1939–1945), in the May 1940 Battle of France, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France aiding the French, was cut off from the rest of the French Army by the German advance. Encircled by the Germans they retreated to the area around the port of Dunkirk. For years, it was assumed that Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to stop the attack, favouring bombardment by the Luftwaffe. However, according to the Official War Diary of Army Group A, its commander, Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt, ordered the halt. Hitler merely validated the order several hours after the fact. This lull in the action gave the British a few days to evacuate by sea and fortify defences. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, ordered any ship or boat available, large or small, to collect the stranded soldiers. 338,226 men (including 123,000 French soldiers) were evacuated – the miracle of Dunkirk, as Churchill called it. It took over 900 vessels to evacuate the Allied forces and although over two-thirds of those rescued embarked via the harbour, almost 100,000 were taken off the beaches. More than 40,000 vehicles as well as massive amounts of other military equipment and supplies were left behind, their value being less than that of trained fighting men. The British evacuation of Dunkirk through the English Channel was codenamed Operation Dynamo. Forty thousand Allied soldiers (some who carried on fighting after the official evacuation) were captured or forced to make their own way home through a variety of routes including via neutral Spain.

If you are approaching Dunkirk from a desire to see a Saving Private Ryan, then you may want to rethink going to see this film. With little convention in the storytelling, this film puts you on the beach, in the air, or on the sea alongside the civilians, pilots, soldiers, and officers. The focus is not on the characters, special effects, or the bloody atrocities of war, but focussed on highlighting a significant event in WWII history that has largely gone unknown except for those in France and the UK. You are very much like a journalist who is capturing the imagery with your camera. It’s a snapshot of war, not necessarily the story of war. War history buffs, this IS a film for you!