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Murder on the Orient Express is a fine adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 murder mystery of the same name, directed by and starring the inimitable Kenneth Branagh as the equally inimitable Hercule Poirot, and co-starring everyone else in Hollywood and the UK.
Hercule Poirot, self-described and named by everyone else as “probably the greatest detective in the world,” boards the Orient Express on his way back to London from Istanbul on urgent State business. He shares the train with fifteen very different people, and while he just wants a bit of a break from detecting, he doesn’t get it. One evening, a man is discovered dead, with clues pointing to no conclusive murderer, and the train is derailed by an avalanche. With everyone trapped together in that one location, Poirot must discover the killer before they reach their next station.
What separates this from all the other murder mysteries out there?
Truly not much. I am a big Agatha Christie fan; I’ve put on a production of And Then There Were None, I’ve watched the David Suchet Poirot series and taught many of Christie’s mysteries in my classes.
That being said, this is a straightforward locked-room mystery (or a locked train carriage mystery). It attempts a twist, but it’s too clunky by nature for a film to do it justice. Branagh has assembled an enormous, almost unwieldy, cast of actors to fill out the many, many characters – and I would almost place that lack of balance more on Christie than on Branagh, since he’s just adapting the source material. However, in today’s golden age of the television miniseries, especially mysteries coming from the UK, I’m left wondering what the need is for a film version that must adhere to a two-hour structure. This time restriction makes us lose the depth we might find in many of the characters in other types of visual storytelling.
Is there a but?
At the same time, I really love Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot. He’s having fun in the role, reveling in the Belgian detective’s delightful absurdity, particularly in the moustache department, which he has turned far above 11. But despite Branagh’s performance, the writing is where the unevenness shows itself. Writer Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) has added a new romantic backstory to Poirot which just doesn’t fit his character. Poirot says on more than one occasion that he is happiest when alone, yet he pines for a lost love? We spend too much time watching Poirot mutter her name and stare at an old photograph, while we should be spending a tad more time getting to know and suspect each of his fellow Express passengers.
That being said, the actors do quite a lot with what they were given. Captain Jack Sparrow is nowhere to be seen in Johnny Depp’s performance, and Josh Gad is particularly understated. Aside from Branagh’s excellent contribution to Poirot (which in no way diminishes Mr. Suchet), Michelle Pfeiffer steals the show. After her crazy, memorable work in mother! this has been a solid year for Pfeiffer. I’d have liked to see more from Dame Judi Dench or Daisy Ridley. Ridley in particular needed more character development. Though she does just fine here (I’d go through each actor and character here, but seriously it’d take far too long…). Unfortunately, it’s simply the lack of development of the characters that lead to the film’s unevenness than anything that the actors did wrong.
Does the mystery work in Murder on the Orient Express?
Even though I’ve read the book and seen the 1974 film, I’d entirely forgotten the ending. This allowed me to follow along and try to guess. Putting the pieces together along with Poirot – I really enjoyed being able to do that. Upon reflection, there are leaps in logic and deductions not entirely earned, because we didn’t see each step of Poirot’s thought process throughout, but we’re definitely given enough there to play along.
People keep calling this film “lavish” – what are they talking about?
The use of the word “lavish“ is earned here – this is a beautiful film, truly. The art direction and costuming and the attention to detail provide a sumptuous visual feast for the eyes. Using 65mm to shoot the film, Branagh allows the camera to luxuriate over the lines of the carriage. Not allowing it to feel claustrophobic but coming up with shots that play into the reduced size of a train car. From the food and wine to the opulent costuming and set design, lavish is apt. It’s when Branagh moves away from what’s real that he finds himself in a bit of trouble.
While the film boasts some beautiful exterior shots, many exterior views of the train look as though they’ve been lifted directly from The Polar Express. Many of the CG effects of the train going through digital snowy mountains really yank us out of the story when they don’t need to. Branagh has made some great films, and he’s an excellent actor. Look at any shot in Hamlet or Henry V — both employ entirely practical productions, and they’ll outmatch the CG railroad vistas here. He should have gone back to his roots, allowing the camera, rather than a computer, to do the work; he also should have gone back to his Hamlet days and produced a longer, more traditional film, which would have allowed us to get to know these characters much more.
For the film’s beauty, for Patrick Doyle’s lovely score, for Branagh’s turn as Poirot (and the hint of perhaps more), and for the sheer sumptuousness of the film’s look and feel: yes. But, see this in the theatre, on a big screen. You can get a better sense of scale and scope. This is a decent, though flawed, first outing for Branagh’s detective, and I hope for more.