Murder on the Orient Express
“When an 83-year old novel is more feminist than its modern film adaptation, you know there’s something wrong.”
Title: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Director: Kenneth Branagh 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Original novel by Agatha Christie 👩🏼🇬🇧 and screenplay by Michael Green 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Murder on the Orient Express is a difficult novel to translate for the silver screen. A first attempt by director Sidney Lumet in 1974 turned a sizeable profit and garnered generally positive reviews, but it fails by modern standards. The film was plodding and monologue-driven, set against repetitive, train-bound backdrops. Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh’s modern update—wherein Branagh both stars and directs—is guilty of the same pitfalls.
David Edelstein argues in his review for Vulture that the dullness of both Murder on the Orient Express films can be chalked up to the novel’s inherent qualities. “The pacing is built into the material,” he says.
The original premise is sound, and the cinematography is pleasant enough to look at. But ultimately, you’ll find yourself wishing this film would just get to the point.
As with many adaptations of older works, Murder on the Orient Express has a difficult time lifting itself out of past inequalities. There are several things Branagh could have done, however, to avoid historic sins. Christie’s novel even offers a great jumping off point for gender equality; her novel includes 13 suspects, nearly half of whom are women. This robust showing actually helps keep this category score above rock bottom, almost a century later.
I was all the more disappointed then to discover that while their numbers are not too bad, women command no more screen time than they did over 40 years ago. Lumet’s 1974 version passes the Bechdel Test multiple times. The older Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid, Hildegard Schmidt (Olivia Colman), are seldom seen apart in either film, but Branagh fills up so much space in his version that no two women are permitted the exchange of even a single word across nearly two hours. It’s a shame to see such storied talent the likes of Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, or Michelle Pfeiffer go flat as they are only seen fit to converse with men.
Finally, I have to call out Johnny Depp’s creep factor. While it helps that he plays a villain who is quickly disposed of, scenes such as his leering at Michelle Pfeiffer (who plays the suspect Caroline Hubbard) comes too close to his documented physical and verbal abuse of ex-wife, Amber Heard, for anything but a mid-movie shudder as his eyes rove up her body and he leans in to smell her hair before propositioning Ms. Hubbard for paid sex. Nooo thank you.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 25% of creative decision-makers were POC
Christie’s Euro-centric novel includes suspects of Swedish, Italian, German, American, British, and Russian descent—an international showing, but one that is by today’s standards entirely white.
Thankfully, Branagh and team realized the awkward optics of an all-white cast for a U.S. audience that is almost 40% POC. Specifically, two characters of color exist within the 17 primary roles—black American Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot and the Spanish Penélope Cruz as the pious Pilar Estravados, whose character was changed from being Swedish in the source material. While their inclusion and positive depictions do make a difference, the otherwise overwhelming whiteness against a backdrop of Middle Eastern exoticism does not carry this category very far.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.00/5
When an 83-year old novel is more feminist than its modern film adaptation, you know there’s something wrong. To add insult to the injury of failing the ultra-simple Bechdel Test, Johnny Depp—a documented domestic abuser—stars in the film and all its marketing.
Look, as much as I love Agatha Christie novels, this latest adaptation needs to simply be forgotten. There is too much good stuff out there to waste your time on this backwards bit of dullness.