2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Kenneth Branagh, Daily Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeifer, Johnny Depp | directed by Kenneth Branagh | 1hr 54mins |
Studio Pitch: A straight-forward adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery.
Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express faces the unfortunate, virtually unsolvable problem movies like Lord of the Rings and this year’s remake of Ghost in the Shell also face. Christie’s story, and her quirky Detective Poirot is (like Sherlock Holmes) so influential to shaping the mystery genre formulas that a simple straight-forward telling of the original story is going to come off as derivative. The mechanics of this story have scattered like pollen in the breeze into a thousand other works of literature, TV and film. Since Poirot’s debut we’ve seen versions of his character and this particular locked-door mystery twisted, turned, parodied, homaged and retrofitted to original stories, most successfully in a fantastic movie from the last decade (Spoiler). So, I don’t envy the uphill battle Branagh has here as a filmmaker; however, for those looking for an old-fashioned mystery telling the story straight forward, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express does the job.
Branagh approaches the material with respect and affection. He makes a great Poirot, quirky and eloquent, and his mustache is epic. We first see him at the height of his world-wide popularity, solving a case involving a priest, a rabbi and an imam in a public square in Egypt. He operates with an obsessive compulsion for balance, measuring two perfectly even eggs before eating them, seeing the imperfections in the world that allows him to see what is out of place. The movie has quite a bit of set-up that moves around the passengers before actually boarding the titular train (I’m surprised no Buzzfeed blogger has called the title “problematic” and demanded it be changed). Once on, Branagh the director makes himself at home, moving his camera down the hall outside of the train and staked out in overhead shots of the cabins. Once a passenger turns up dead in a classic Christie locked room, everyone is a suspect and Poirot and the film settle in for a series of interviews for the 12 prominent train passengers while the engine lays stalled on the tracks due to an avalanche.
The movie is long on atmosphere and tone and moves at a nice pace, but it’s short on rich characters outside of Poirot. They’re suspects, increasingly revealed as liars and charlatans. An all star cast does what they can with very little including Olivia Coleman in a thankless role as Judi Dench’s personal assistant, and Dench herself despite delivering the funniest line in the movie. Dafoe and Pfeifer are pretty good here and Josh Gad is less obnoxious than he’s probably ever been. Small miracles. This movie has an A-list cast, but they don’t often interact, and I’d guess that signing on to this movie only meant 2 or 3 days of shooting each. Murder justifiably treats Poirot as the star of the show and everyone else as clues to unravel at the service of the story, instead of flesh and blood characters. We don’t like or root against any of them outside of our own familiarity with the actor in the role.
The film plays out from Poirot’s perspective and works on a visual, mechanical, superficial level. I was entertained watching it. I like the mood of being put on that train on the side of that mountain; but it also feels like your average episode of a weekly, client-based crime TV series that are themselves often based on Christie’s work. Even when it rolls out its explanation (in classic black and white flashback, of course) it doesn’t explain as much as it thinks it does (like why it had to happen the way it does). If you’re interested in an easy going, time-passing 2 hours that faithfully re-tells a classic story – and is old fashioned in some very nice and agreeable ways – this is the murder mystery to see. It’s a bedrock story in the genre, told just fine.
But if you’re looking for something surprising, richly layered, satisfying and character-driven, or just something like Steven Moffat’s updated Sherlock, that comes at classic Sherlock Holmes stories from fresh and exciting new angles, this film will be easily forgettable. In one ear and out the other. There is nothing really wrong with Murder on the Orient Express, but there is also nothing really special about it either. It falls in that safe, vanilla middle ground.