Synopsis – A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.
My Take – I came into the screening of this Kenneth Branagh directed adaption having virtually no familiarity with the storyline of the 1934 novel from author Agatha Christie, nor had I ever seen any screen adaptions, including the quite popular 1974 film from director Sidney Lumet, all I knew was that the trailer blew me away! With all ingredients like, a tremendous cast, a good looking production-design and a seasoned director with deep roots in both stage and film-work, in the pot, it seemed like this film was destined to be great, right? Unfortunately, in my view, no, not quite. There’s a big problem with director Branagh‘s 2017 adaption of the Hercule Poirot-based murder mystery because it fails to do the one thing that a murder mystery is meant to do, which is to keep you deeply interested from beginning to end. Don’t get me wrong, the film is perfectly watchable, as the storyline is good, with the excellent and varied cast keeping the film consistently engaging, and captivating us as only these fine actors can do, yet the imperfect tone overshadows what could have been quite an exceptional whodunit, hereby underwhelming both Christie diehards and casual observers. The story follows Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), an irascible, borderline OCD, but undeniably great Belgian detective, who in the year 1934, is dragged around the world by grateful police forces to help solve unsolvable crimes, and his reputation precedes him wherever he goes. After solving a case in Jerusalem, Poirot is called back to the UK with his fastest mode of transport being the famous Orient Express, all thanks to a seat granted by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who is now the director of the famous train.
On board the Express, he intends to get some rest, unfortunately faith has other plans for him as one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a sleazy art dealer, during a snow storm, ends up murdered in his first class cabin. As the train remains stuck in the avalanche, the passengers wait for the mechanics to turn up and get it moving again, however, Poirot upon Bouc’s request, sets about solving the mystery as every person on board is a figure of suspicion, while the local authorities might arrive and accuse the wrong person of the murder. Passengers ranging from a Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), a pious missionary to Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a flirtatious divorcee, to Gerhard (Willem Dafoe), a startlingly racist professor on route to a conference, to Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her help Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) to Rachett’s Lawyer & butler, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), to an African American physician Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) to Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), a Dutchess, to the secretive couple, Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), to Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican car dealer, and of course the conductor, Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari). As Poirot continues his interviews, he begins to realize that nothing about them is as it seems. As with any film centered on a mystery, there’s a thrill in following the evidence, trying to figure out the whodunit and the how. As far as the actual story itself goes, it really is exceptional; it’s difficult to fault Christie and her intricate plots and director Branagh and writer Michael Green really do put across the story well. The film has a slow and awkwardly staged beginning and the ingenious denouement feels under-cooked and contrived for an ending so justifiably famous and brilliant. Just to make it clear, the problem is not the denouement itself, it’s the execution of it that’s the problem. At heart, it’s a fairly static and “stagey” piece at best, set as it is on the rather claustrophobic train, but the tale is made even more static by the train’s derailment in the snow. Director Branagh and writer Green try to ramp up the action where they can, but there are lengthy passages of fairly repetitive dialogue. One encounter in particular between Poirot and Ratchet seems to last interminably: you wonder if the problem was that the director wasn’t always looking on to yell cut. Sadly there’s rarely a particularly tense scene, something that feels particularly lacking. Considering they’re trapped in a train because of an avalanche, snow surrounding and isolating them, the barren outside a deathly cold mountain, you’d have thought this would be an excellent way of heightening the claustrophobia and sinister atmosphere. Instead, although the scenery is beautifully filmed, it looks more like a Christmas card than a deadly setting for a murder investigation. We’ve seen from BBC’s Sherlock that when filmed well investigations can be delightfully exciting and lavishly filmed in a really stylish manner, flashbacks and effects utilized in a way to make each revelation and finding of a clue thrilling. Here however, clues are often underwhelming and almost forgettable, their importance not necessarily highlighted leaving it a little cluttered and making us feel slightly lost at times. Plus, the moral gymnastics that take place in the third act feel unsatisfying.
Granted, for anyone familiar with the story, the film will be less about figuring out who did it than watching how Poirot gets to the finish line. Conversely, there are other elements that don’t work. The mystery itself is intriguing as a story but doesn’t have enough tension or energy. Yet, for someone like myself, the grand reveal despite the somewhat underwhelming build up, was in my opinion, quite powerful & totally unexpected. The characters, too, are interesting portraits of the many types of personas familiar to the era, with the most stereotyped personified in director Branagh‘s portrayal of detective Hercules Poirot. With a story that has been around as long as this one, there is a bit of a minefield when it comes to bringing it to life that could easily fall down the slope into parody or caricature, but screenwriter Green, is able to write characters that lets the actors really get into the skins of onscreen persona, while treating them with the proper respect and dignity. Yes, there ARE a few liberties taken with the characters themselves, but there was nothing done that gave me even a little bit of growling. Each character has its own arc and motivations that work into the larger picture in a way that is engaging with no wasted space at all. Sadly, a lot of this characters are criminally underused. We hardly get to know some players who are vital to the plot along with one of the main suspects who seemed like an important character overall has so few lines that he almost seems superfluous in director Branagh‘s adaptation. And I think we have the director to blame here, who seems to be infatuated with his own face. Instead of spending more time with the rest of the ensemble, he gives us one long close-up of himself after the other – a decision whose negative impact on the film is exacerbated by a seemingly trivial item – Poirot’s facial hair. Yes, it also seemed that the film’s main source of lightness is meant to be Poirot, and more specifically his giant mustache, which the film takes every opportunity to lovingly highlight, at one point having Poirot sit up in bed wearing a leather mustache protector strapped to his face. I like a good facial hair situation as much as the next person, but the movie so strenuously relies on it as a punchline that it wears out its welcome. Still, despite this, detecting and investigating the murder with Poirot can still at times be fun, feeling like we’re part of the action. This is best done right at the beginning during a sort of mini-case, similar to small action scenes at the beginning of James Bond films; this scene in particular is done very well. A lot of this is down to the quips and jokes that come from Poirot himself, really making his character and adding a personality to the film. Also the film is visually very beautiful & very elegantly shot in 65mm film, with lots of stunning scenery, sumptuous costumes that are evocative of the period and a train that has the grandeur and claustrophobic confinement that is necessary. The make-up is also wonderfully elaborate, along with plush backdrops, and costumes tailored to that era. The performances here are exactly what I expected from a cast of this caliber. As the lead, Kenneth Branagh is excellent. With an understandable and mercilessly non-annoying French/ Belgian accent, Branagh‘s incarnation is absolutely likable and played to perfection. Standouts include Judi Dench, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, a surprisingly well-cast and suitably conflicted Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley, while, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi and Willem Dafoe also make much of not very much, along with their other co-stars. Johnny Depp is also good in his limited role. On the whole, ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ is a grisly old-fashioned murder mystery with great visuals and an epic cast, let down by a blandly uninspired screenplay.
Directed – Kenneth Branagh
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 114 minutes