Murder on the Orient Express

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh has remade the iconic Murder on the Orient Express with mediocre results. Agatha Christie’s 1934 book has rafts of loyalists who are usually skeptical when books, movies, and now TV shows are patterned on it. This time, they’re right, but most of us will go anyway.

The plot is irresistible for writers, filmmakers, and movie lovers. What’s more fun than legendary detective Hercule Poirot on a train as he tries to discover who among thirteen strangers has killed a man in their car? Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The sight of it is rivetingly beautiful. The train leaves the station in light snow that grows heavier as it moves into the storm. We are treated to prolonged shots of the silver sleeper plowing through the white snowdrifts until an avalanche knocks a car off the track. Cinematographer Hans Zambarloukos delivers the beauty of the train roaring through the blizzard.

The magic of any train is its movement; that’s what they do and it’s why they are loved. The movement of the Orient Express seems to wrap the train in the mystery that is unfolding inside as Poirot questions the murder suspects. The derailment in this version stops not only the train but turns the questioning into something bordering on job interviews in a cramped space. The magic is gone. Suspense is absent.

Poirot questions the tangle of strangers deftly but what they reveal about themselves has a dull feel. We watch as a fine cast is fed dialogue which they deliver in contemporary accents that undercut the atmosphere and the story. We want this to be 1934 when trains were the apex of travel. Don’t modernize it.

We watch Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacoby, Lucy Boynton Judi Dench, and other good actors as they struggle to become characters against the odds director Branagh has laid on them. The stilted questioning in the silent train seems in the stillness like a narrow hotel corridor. They try, but this part of this story is doomed.

In a welcome exception, Branagh, the actor, creates an interesting Poirot. Anyone who plays this famous fictional guy is welcome to create a new portrait of him as long as it includes the detective’s passion for truth along with his vain, intuitive, stylish, tough self. It is always fun to watch Poirot as he sifts through the lies that surround him. And the new moustache is Branagh’s personal quirk. He continues a fine tradition of bringing his own version of Poirot alive from Agatha Christie’s pages.

Is anything as romantic as a train moving through the snow? No, but beautiful filming doesn’t make up for the oddly dull search for the murderer. There is one perfect solution: go see it and thrill to the sight of the train moving through the blizzard. When the train is stuck, just leave. Go out for dinner and discuss the beautiful first hour.

Novitiate

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Novitiate

From beginning to end, Novitiate stirs a flood of questions and reactions. Because the movie is so beautifully filmed, acted, written, and directed, the audience is free to think only about the compelling issues raised. That earns a salute for writer/director Margaret Betts who avoids all the excesses that might have weakened the film.

Part of the movie unfolds before the Vatican II conference called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 to address the spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church in the modern world, the first such assessment in 100 years. Part two unfolds after the conference as we watch Mother Superior Marie St. Claire (Melissa Leo) cling to the principles she has been teaching for forty years.

Upset by her parents’ vicious arguments, young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) tells her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) that she is going to enter training to be a nun. The new group trains under the rules laid down by their defiant Mother Superior, who tolerates no deviation of any kind. They are ordered to leave the outside world for an interior one, giving their love only to Christ. The comfort of human touch is forbidden, sign language replaces talking.

After eighteen months, some have been expelled, some are weakening, Cathleen remains dedicated. She has traded the chaos of her parents’ violent arguments for what she loves about the church – “It’s peaceful.” At 17, she tells her mother “I’m giving my life to Christ.”

That’s where the postulants and the audience are before Vatican II. Forced to explore the loss of thousands of churchgoers, Vatican II assembles to address the survival of the Church in the modern world that celebrates the exploration of ideas. And then, Vatican II addresses just that. When Mother St. Claire receives the new rules for the Church from Vatican II, she tears them up and continues as usual. Her insistence on the old ways and her denial of the new, contradict the beliefs of civilized society and of democracy. We watch the erosive effect of forbidden touch and enforced silence on Cathleen. Wherever any of our affiliations lie, the questions of the Church in the modern world are compelling.

Genuinely fine acting lets us sink into thinking about the dilemmas. It is the majestic, if tragic performance by Melissa Leo as the Mother Superior that rivets us as she stands against her newly modernized Church. Margaret Qualley silences us with her quiet, serious performance as the devoted 17 year old searching for her future. Actor Denis O’Hare’s Archbishop, who delivers the news of modernization to the Mother Superior, is almost lighthearted in his calm acceptance and delivery of the new rules. Julianne Nicholson is tough but restrained as Cathleen’s devoted but worried mother.

It’s hard to imagine anyone of any age who won’t be absorbed by the determination of this movie to explore the role of the Catholic Church in today’s world when all the obvious questions are presented to us with such skill.

This review was posted on November 12, 2017, in Drama.