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Front Page - Friday, November 17, 2017

Critic's Corner: ‘Orient Express’ has a sleeping berth

I know snoring is frowned upon at the movies. It’s up there with texting, talking and chewing Jujubes with mouth open on the list of capital offenses at the cinema. But it’s not like I did it on purpose.

It’s just that “Murder on the Orient Express,” the new film based on the famous 1934 Agatha Christie mystery, is boring. To the fellow filmgoer who tapped my shoulder and pointed to the nearest exit, please accept my sincerest apology.

Having seen the film twice, I estimate I missed just over half of it during my first sitting. When I returned two days later to see it in full and write a proper review, I went in armed with a large soda and a bag of M&M’s. If the caffeine didn’t keep me up, maybe the sugar would, I thought.

I still struggled to stay focused during the second half of the movie. It’s just ... so ... boring.

Kenneth Branagh, who directed the film and stars as Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous detective, tried to make an entertaining movie. But I fear he was hampered by a screenplay that loses steam the farther along the rails it travels.

The novel’s central conceit is well-known: A tangle of strangers, including Poirot, board the titular train. Before long, someone is murdered. The detective is on the case, piecing together clues and cross-examining witness.

The film follows this premise, as well and, as I understand from doing a bit of research, contains only one major modification from the novel. Having not read Christie’s thriller, I cannot vouch for that.

As I mentioned, Branagh didn’t set out to make a snoozer. On the contrary, the opening scenes, when the director introduces Poirot as he solves a theft in Jerusalem and is then ushered aboard the Orient Express by circumstances beyond his control, are visually lavish and quite fun.

I felt like I was watching a classic film filled with beautiful locations and hundreds of extras and propelled by the joy of cinema. If the entire film had maintained the energy of its first third, I’d be writing a different review.

Branagh also put together a stellar group of A-list actors for the film. Sounding somewhat like the cast of “Clue,” there’s Michelle Pfeiffer as the widow, Willem Dafoe as the professor, Leslie Odom Jr. as the doctor and so on. Add Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and more, and you have a cast that feels like a throwback to the days when films were often packed with star power and celebrity.

Finally, Branagh is wonderful as Poirot. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he brings a Shakespearian ferocity to the role while also infusing the detective with amusing quirks. Egregious facial hair aside, I immediately liked Poirot.

Although Poirot is famous, he’s not an archetype. Rather, he’s a complex character whose well-being hinges on maintaining balance in the world. This includes everything from insisting the boiled eggs he eats for breakfast be identical in size to ensuring justice is served when a crime is committed.

To serve mismatched eggs or to fail to catch a killer would leave an imbalance and disrupt Poirot’s world. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (“Logan,” “Blade Runner 2049”) carefully developed this aspect of the detective, which is vital to what happens in the climactic scene.

Unfortunately, by the time “Murder on the Orient Express” ended, I was simply glad it was over. How could this be, given the fine work done on different aspects of the film? Simple: Once the train is stuck behind an avalanche in a remote mountain range, the story ceases to be interesting or make sense.

Long stretches of the second half of “Murder on the Orient Express” consist of Poirot going from person to person conducting interviews. At this point, the movie loses both its visual allure and its vitality. Worse, Branagh and Green cram these scenes with details, many of which are delivered in the most rote manner possible – through dialogue.

Also, I don’t know whether to blame Christie’s novel or Green’s screenplay, but more than a few things seem off. Without going into spoiler territory, the behavior of the characters often makes no sense, false clues are pointlessly planted and obvious solutions are overlooked.

“Murder on the Orient Express” also lacks a sense of mounting tension and suspense. It merely plods along for a while and then the ending arrives. Even the big reveal is more of a sputter than a thrill. One of the most crucial shots in the film – the one in which the murder is shown – seems rushed. The staging of the shot doesn’t add up, either.

Though the destination disappoints, the journey there does have its pleasures. Perhaps, like me, you could enjoy the first half of the film and then catch a few winks. Just make sure to sit alone – or near someone who’s chewing Jujubes with their mouth open.

That trumps even snoring on the list of capital offenses at the cinema.

On a scale of See It Now, See It Later or Skip It: Skip it