Kenneth Branagh’s lavish rendition of Agatha Christie’s potboiler mystery Murder on the Orient Express is buried in excess. With its all-star cast and luxurious sets shot on beautiful 65mm film, this was clearly meant to feel like an event. And yet, despite its many splendid charms, Murder on the Orient Express can’t quite put all its pieces together like one of Detective Poirot’s theory. Agatha Christie’s novel has endured since it was published in 1934. Branagh’s film, on the other hand, is opulent holiday escapism you’ll likely forget before the year is out.
Like most of Christie’s novels, the setup is ingeniously and deviously simple. As the world moves slowly and inevitably towards its second global war, the luxurious Orient Express makes its way eastward through the snowy mountains. This sleepy journey is interrupted when a passenger is murdered in the middle of the night. With a snowdrift blocking the train’s path, the passengers find themselves trapped aboard the train with a killer in their midst. Luckily Detective Hercule Poirot, played by director Kenneth Branagh, who describes himself as probably the best detective in the world, is also aboard the train. Using his powers of detection and perception, Poirot becomes determined to discover who is not who they say they are.
The film’s advertising has made a big deal about Poirot’s list of suspects and it’s easy to see why – Branagh has stacked this cast with stars. Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley all star with Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Sergei Polunin filling out the list of suspects. And yet, contrary to what you might expect, Murder on the Orient Express is not an ensemble piece. Quite the opposite, actually. Branagh keeps the 65mm cameras pointed squarely at himself, as the delightfully quirky Detective Poirot.
It becomes clear almost immediately that Murder on the Orient Express is, above all else, a film about Poirot. Introduced in an excessive opening set piece at the Wailing Wall that is as aggrandizing as it is unnecessary, Branagh clearly sees his detective as a superhero circa 1934 and is largely successful at turning him into one. Branagh’s Poirot is ingenious, eccentric, and captivating to watch. Sadly, with so much focus on Poirot, his list of suspects feels constructed out of cardboard cutouts by comparison, distilling their roles down to occupation, plus one or two distinguishing features.
Other than Poirot, the film’s most distinguishable character is its victim, Edward Ratchett, a shady businessman with a dark past, played by Johnny Depp, who should have started playing villain roles years ago. Ratchett and Poirot share only one scene together and it’s one of the best bits of the film. But sadly, in order for there to be a murder on the Orient Express, someone has to die. Once Ratchett is found dead in his room, the film largely becomes a procedural, concerning itself primarily with suspect interrogations and the occasional dash to find clues.
The screenplay by Michael Green does keep things moving along, but the Murder on the Orient Express generates more intrigue than genuine suspense. For a film about a group of strangers trapped on a train with a murderer in their midst, there’s a noticeable lack of paranoia. Murder on the Orient Express is mostly a light affair and it’s at its best when it keeps a sense of wry whimsy about itself. The film is less compelling when it lapses into more melodramatic territory, with the shifts in tone only serving to highlight the absurdity of its own premise.
But, while the film’s narrative sometimes veers astray, The Murder on the Orient Express is always a feast for the eyes. This is cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos fifth collaboration with Branagh and the two work wonders together. Even beneath the layers of digital snow and fog, the film manages to feel like a product of a bygone era, undoubtedly a result of its 65mm production. The stunning production design by Jim Clay looks astonishing in 70mm and leaves every frame dripping in classical Hollywood elegance. The Murder on the Orient Express is a spectacular looking film, even if it doesn’t always quite feel like the spectacle it was meant to be.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
In another time and place, Murder on the Orient Express would have been the film event of the holiday season. But as is, Branagh’s retelling of the classic mystery is little more than a melodramatic whodunit, albeit a beautifully shot one. Everything about it is perfectly adequate, but there’s very little that’s truly special about it. The casting is impressive, but the performances are unremarkable, leaving Branagh himself as the only standout. This is, perhaps, by design as Branagh has expressed interest in making more Poirot films if this is successful. I’m sure the words ‘Agatha Christie Extended Universe’ have been spoken at Fox, because it’s 2017 and we can’t have nice things. But if none of that happens and this is Branagh’s only film as the world’s greatest detective, The Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a bad one. It’s just a forgettable one.