Cinematic adaptations of well known stories are always a challenge. For one, the most famous stories have been retold numerous times and filmmakers often struggle to bring something new to their version. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most famous murder mysteries in fiction and its several film adaptations have spoiled the story for many (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you here).
Kenneth Branagh tries his best to bring something new to the familiar mystery. His version of Murder on the Orient Express features strong performances from an all star cast, but it relies on the emotion of its central murder rather than the mystery around it. While this approach is different and very much appreciated, the mystery is revealed haphazardly and the characters are never developed enough for us to feel anything for them. The film’s conclusion is meant to be an emotional punch, but it’s only a glancing blow.
As famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) travels on the Orient Express, a murder aboard the luxury train interrupts his supposed brief vacation. Everyone aboard the train, from royalty (Judi Dench), to a ditzy American (Michelle Pfeiffer), to a simple governess (Daisy Ridley), is a suspect. Poirot takes pride in his black and white approach to justice, but with every revelation, the seasoned detective begins to question his closely held beliefs.
Murder on the Orient Express’ strength is its cast, as there is not one bad performance in the film. However, the characters sometimes lack the balance that Hercule Poirot (And an audience) crave so much. Some are given room to develop, while others are given one powerful scene and then become background dressing.
First the good. Kenneth Branagh has a ball portraying Poirot, masterfully showing off the character’s charm and utter dedication to justice. You can sense the fun he is having in the role. If anything else, he is the reason to see this film.
Michelle Pfeiffer has a smaller role, but makes the most of it as ditzy Caroline Hubbard. Penelope Cruz’s role is even smaller as the pious Pilar Estravados, but she gives the character, who has a troubled history, genuine emotional weight. And of course Johnny Depp is his usual great self, giving his criminal Ratchett the suitable amount of sleaze.
But the most surprising aspect of the supporting cast? That the relative newcomers get more screen time than the established actors. Daisy Ridley’s governess Mary Debenham is given the lion’s share of time with Poirot in terms of the suspects. Yes, she is incredibly famous because of her role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it is surprising given the star power of the rest of the cast. But Ridley is also good as the spunky teacher. Tom Bateman is also sleazily charming as Poirot’s friend and Orient Express official Bouc. There is a surprisingly large amount of time establishing his character, but he makes it entertaining nonetheless.
The rest of the cast is woefully underused. Josh Gad, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Willem Dafoe are given one or two decent scenes, but then become barely better than extras for long stretches. Granted, in a two hour film with a cast this large, it’s hard to give everyone equal time, but Judi Dench’s character is regulated to a few grunts and a monologue. Her character’s assistant is given more screen time and dialogue…though I won’t complain too much about the underrated Olivia Coleman getting some love. Generally, Poirot fills in the blanks with exposition and that’s never quite as compelling as showing us.
So yes…Branagh and the filmmakers give us a shiny new film of a familiar and beloved story. The production values are on point and the special effects are very well done. But because the film chooses to rely on emotion, the uneven treatment of the characters sabotages the filmmakers’ attempt to do something different.
It Doesn’t Add Up
That focus on emotion takes away from the film’s central mystery. Poirot literally pulls conclusions out of nowhere in what I can only conclude is in the interest of time. Some of these conclusions are shown visually in admittedly impressive black and white flashbacks, but it makes Poirot feel superhuman, which is a disservice to the character. His conclusions should come out of human ingenuity, not plot convenience.
When the film’s conclusion comes around, the talent of the filmmakers does show. Patrick Doyle’s score, which exists quietly in the background for most of the film, swells with emotion as Poirot confronts the culprit behind the murder. Every actor’s performance is pitch perfect in those final scenes and it is shot and edited beautifully. You will feel something…
But because so many of the characters are glossed over in the first two acts of the film, this emotional moment fails to completely win you over. I see what Branagh is going for…I even admire him for it. But the mix that makes a film brilliant never quite comes together here despite a valiant effort.
A Noble Attempt
Murder on the Orient Express is an entertaining film, but it could have been so much more. There is an emotional core concerning murder, dealing with loss, and “true” justice that peeks through, but it never fully materializes. Given the talent involved, this is both surprising and disappointing.
SCORE: 6 OUT OF 10