Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” revamps 1974 classic

Updated: Apr 5, 2018

4K ULTRA HD REVIEW

Actor/producer/director Kenneth Branagh plays the celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. (Frame shots courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy, PG-13 for violence and thematic elements; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes (4K) Vudu, YouTube


Best extra: A comprehensive commentary with actor/producer/director Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green


KENNETH BRANAGH wanted his adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” to have “scale and breadth” – while staying true to the grand studio films of the golden age of Hollywood.


With a $50 million-plus budget from 20th Century Fox, the lush production was mostly filmed at Longcross Studios, outside of London. Branagh, considered a celluloid purist, refused to shoot on digital and decided to capture Agatha Christie’s murderous whodunit on huge 65mm Panavision cameras. Only four cameras are still operational, and were recently used by director Christopher Nolan for the non-IMAX scenes in “Dunkirk.”

Screenwriter Michael Green diverges from the novel in the opening scene of “Orient Express,” which he sets at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.


VIDEO

Equivalent to 12K digital resolution, the massive film cameras – one step down from IMAX – allowed for an astonishing level of definition in the color, range of tones, and contrast. “It echoes more the experience of the human eye,” says Branagh during the featurette, “All Aboard: Filming Murder on the Orient Express.”


The large-format film stock was mastered in 4K, a perfect match for the 4K Ultra HD disc format, providing a stunning picture, the best for home viewing so far in 2018. The imagery is sharper, richer and more colorful than any other format, plus more vivid than the 4K streaming views at home.


“It feels like you’re inside it, that’s what 65mm does for me and that’s why we chose that format,” says the director.


The biggest challenge was getting the film processed. There were no labs available in the U.K. or in Europe to handle the 65mm film stock. The only one was in Los Angeles, making it impracticable to view the previous day’s footage. So Kodak reopened a lab, in England, that had been non-operational for over 30 years.


The film grain is compact and nearly invisible, as Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos provide a dazzling visual backdrop, including several scenes filmed on the Mediterranean island of Malta. The rest was shot at Longcross, with its sound stages and back lot containing a mile-long rail track. A number of practical effects were included, with a rail-bridge built at the studio, a 30-ton replica locomotive, and passenger cars with oversized corridors to handle the cameras.

The huge 65mm Panavision cameras captured Branagh's "Murder on the Orient Express" with amazing clarity.

FX scenery was applied in spots and rendered in 4K, giving the landscape a superior visual tone, compared to Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient” from 1974. That version was highly praised, touting an all-star cast that included Albert Finney, in his delightful Oscar-nominated performance as the celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot; Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller and Ingrid Bergman, who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Greta Ohlsson – a mystery, give there’s nothing in her performance worthy of much merit.


Christie, known as the “Queen of Mystery,” was originally inspired to write the novel by the real-life headlines of the 1932 kidnapping, and subsequent killing, of Charles Lindbergh's 20-month old son. The book was published 20 months later, centered around a murder of revenge, which takes place just after midnight on the famed luxury train filled with international travelers. The train has been stopped by a massive snowdrift near Vinkovci in today’s eastern Croatia.


Screenwriter Michael Green, considered one of Hollywood’s best (“Logan”; “Blade Runner 2049”), diverges from the novel in the opening scene of “Orient Express,” which he sets at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There, he introduces Poirot, the world-renowned detective, with Branagh in the prized role. He wears a salty, multi-layered mustache, a reference to a Christie newspaper article on Poirot’s quirks and specifics. Poirot is conducting an open-air courtroom in front of hundreds at the wall, solving a crime between three religious leaders and a police officer. Summoned to London by a British officer, Poirot next sails to Istanbul, and then plans the three-day trip on the Simplon-Orient Express back to Europe.


Branagh’s all-star cast includes Johnny Depp as the scar-faced tough guy (Widmark in the original), the so-called art dealer Ratchett, who offers Poirot a large sum of money to be his bodyguard after receiving a number of death threats; veteran British actor Derek Jacobi as Ratchett’s butler; Josh Gad, the shady personal secretary Hector MacQueen; Penélope Cruz as Pilar Estravados, the missionary; Willem Dafoe as the Nazi sympathizer and Austrian professor; Michelle Pfeiffer (Bacall’s former role) as the widow and husband-hunter Mrs. Hubbard; Daisy Ridley (Rey, from the latest “Star Wars”) as British governess Mary Debenham; Leslie Odom Jr. (of Broadway’s “Hamilton”) as Mary’s secret lover, Dr. Arbuthnot. Sean Connery had that role in ’74. Dame Judy Dench plays the grumpy, imperious Princess Dragomifoff, with Olivia Coleman as her maid; Russian dancer Sergei Polunin as the devoted husband Count Andrenyi; Lucy Boynton as the intoxicated Countess Elena; and Marwan Kenzari as the train conductor, Pierre Michel.

Michelle Pfeiffer as the widow and husband-hunter Mrs. Hubbard.
Johnny Depp as the scar-faced tough guy, the so-called art dealer Ratchett.
The murder scene
Poirot rounds up the 12 suspects

Each character is decked out in fashionable garb by designer Alexandra Byrne, with the 4K imagery revealing the finest details, from fabric patterns to textures.

As expected, the obsessively perfectionistic Poirot pieces the clues together, linking them to a sensational murder in the U.S. Green has even reinvented the Belgian detective by giving him a brief action sequence.


The worldwide reception to “Orient Express” was quite good, earning over $350 million, considering its modest budget. This probably guarantees that Poirot will be back for a sequel – especially since he receives word at the close of the film that there’s been a murder on the Nile.


AUDIO

The 4K disc includes the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, delivering a more engaging audio experience from the environmental effects pushed to the height speakers, while most of Patrick Doyle’s strings-heavy orchestrated score is front and center, as is the dialogue.

Behind the scenes video



EXTRAS

The enclosed Blu-ray includes eight featurettes which highlight the production, the music, the 12 suspects, and a portrait of Agatha Christie, with historic audio recordings, and interviews with her grandson Mathew Prichard, screenwriter Michael Green, authors Dr. John Curran, Anthony Horowitz and Sophie Hannah. Also included are a number of deleted scenes.


The commentary featured on the 4K and Blu-ray, with Branagh and Green, is a complete film-school lecture with dozens of backstories and technical insights, including how they used several thousand huge LED screens to surround the train car with winter footage from New Zealand as a slimness backdrop, while cameras rolled inside the car. Green, who says the novel was masterfully structured, pulled several pages for a pivotal scene that kicks off the story, as Ratchett converses with Poirot.


Don’t miss this handsome ride during the golden age of travel.


- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


Poirot heads to his next adventure.

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