In Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh directs Kenneth Branagh as Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot. The film informs us of his reputation by opening with Poirot solving a crime in front of an abundant crowd, as if he is the main attraction at a circus. In case this was not enough—and because the script felt the need to address its own ludicrous facial hair creation—Daisy Ridley’s Mary Debenham recites her first line in the film thusly:
“I know your mustache…from the papers!”
When the plot of the film begins in earnest—in which a mobster criminal (Johnny Depp) hiding on the train is stabbed to death in the middle of the night—Poirot will dictate again: “I may be the world’s greatest detective.”
This last one may have been enough. If you weren’t already aware of Christie’s works, this one-off line would have set up his character’s profession and reputation just fine. All the nonsense about his eggs being level and his obsession with artisan Istanbul bread is all well and good, but the preamble to the film feels like a stretch just to reach a feature length.
As much as the film could have begun on the train (which we do not see for upwards of 15 minutes), this trend for the script to over-explain itself continues throughout the film. There are some moments where the cogs are turning in Poirot’s head suddenly enough that the revelations occur as actual reveals. Other times, however, Poirot’s randy pal Bouc (Tom Bateman) will respond to Poirot’s adequately snappy dialogue by re-emphasizing what the audience is meant to understand about the clues.
This said, Branagh does a valiant job trying to make Christie’s novel read as a film. The film is snappy and lively, mostly due to the abundance of Poirot that we get. Branagh’s performance is rather delightful, even if his performance lessens the screentime of all others involved.
Attempting to make the film appear filmic also causes more distraction than anything else. In order to obtain the guise of being dynamic, Poirot’s interrogations of the passengers on the train are held in various cramped locations at various, at times grotesque, angles.
That each interview is held in a different part of the train (or, in one case, outside of the train) as opposed to in Poirot’s passenger car is explained away, lazily, in one throwaway line. Branagh’s visual juxtaposition of striking symmetry with wildly canted angles? There is no excuse given.
Visually, Murder on the Orient Express is quite lovely. Aside from visual tics that appear to be for bravado more than anything else—those canted angles, a scene that entirely plays from a bird’s-eye-view, a shot staged as if it is a depiction of the Last Supper—the film has a warmth to its lighting and color that adds a visual depth.
The cast of Murder on the Orient Express is likely the biggest draw of the film. The cast list is stacked top-to-bottom with talent. Do not, however, expect to see much of these veteran and up-and-coming talent. This is Branagh’s show from start to finish. Leslie Odom Jr., Daisy Ridley, and Josh Gad probably get the next best screentime, and they all do a fine job (Gad feels a bit miscast, but he holds his own).
Beyond that, characters are introduced as needed and then put on the back burner until needed again. The duchess character—who felt like an important node in the mystery when this reviewer read the book, but perhaps he misremembers—is only given dialogue when it is time for her character to become a red herring.
Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, and Michelle Pfeiffer are all actors that you may forget are in the film until they pop up in a scene later on. Their characters are left to stagnate somewhere off-screen, not developing or given life before our eyes.
With such poor judgment on character, the film’s final payoff, the answer to the profound mystery, feels more contrived than it does on the page. In execution, it comes off rather silly. A black-and-white flashback doesn’t help the case in this regard.
Murder on the Orient Express is a fine little mystery film, innocuous more than anything. It works hard to do its source material justice, but doesn’t quite translate the wit or the intrigue. A stellar cast does solid work with what little they are given, and Branagh is left taking the blame for leaving them high and dry. When a man’s mustache gets more to do on screen than Dame Judi Dench, something might be wrong.
Murder on the Orient Express: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)