How long has it been since we’ve had a good old-fashioned murder mystery on the big screen? Much less one with a star-studded cast like the one in Kenneth Branagh’s latest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express? It has been quite a while. Diving into the deep well of Agatha Christie novels, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have crafted a loving tribute to the genre that proves to be light on character development but heavy on fun.
In the hopes of taking a break from his daily life as a world-famous detective, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) boards the Orient Express for some much needed R&R. While aboard the train, Poirot meets the rather detestable Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, the most understated he’s been in years), who asks him to figure out who has been leaving him threatening notes since his arrival on the train. After declining his offer with a hilariously succinct response (“I don’t like your face”), Ratchett is found murdered in his train cabin. Poirot then begins interrogating the remaining passengers on the train in order to solve the murder.
The suspect list is a long one: we’ve got a governess (Daisy Ridley), a count (Sergei Polunin), a countess (Lucy Boynton, The Blackcoat’s Daughter), a widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), a professor (Willem Dafoe), a missionary (Penélope Cruz), an assistant (Josh Gad), a princess (Judi Dench), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) a butler (Derek Jacobi), a salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a maid (Olivia Colman, Hot Fuzz). And yes, I took those descriptions from the trailer.
As evidenced by that lengthy cast list, Murder on the Orient Express is a very crowded film. In fact, that proves to be the film’s only major flaw. Green could have afforded to excise two or three characters from his screenplay in order to flesh out the others. No one player is given the focus, save for Branagh of course. His Hercule (pronounced air-cyule, and he won’t let you forget it) is given a lengthy introduction before the film even boards the titular vehicle, and he remains the focus for the remainder of the film. Distributor 20th Century Fox is clearly wanting to start a franchise with Murder on the Orient Express, and is using the film to re-introduce an iconic character to a new audience. This isn’t too problematic since Branagh portrays Poirot with a quirky and infectious sense of glee. With every other line out of his mouth inspiring a chuckle, he manages to run away with the film.
Unfortunately, this leaves everyone else in the cast to a limited amount of screen time, making them no more than one-dimensional characters. Boynton and Polunin are particularly shafted, each of them earning a mere three scenes at most. You’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between the characters had they been portrayed by a cast of unknowns, however. That being said, we are dealing with a plethora of extremely talented actors and they all make the most of their screen time. Pfeiffer, in particular, manages to overcome the weaknesses of Green’s script and give us the most well-rounded character outside of Poirot.
The real star of the film is Haris Zambarloukos’ luscious cinematography. Filled with gorgeous shots of snowy landscapes, the film never ceases to amaze. Zambarloukos shows even more talent in the confined spaces of the Orient Express (one overhead shot near the end of the first act stands out). Working with that limited space, he conveys a necessary sense of claustrophobia while still managing to give Jim Clay’s detailed production design the attention it deserves. It’s easy to see why Branagh, who previously worked with him on Thor and Cinderella, decided to bring him back for this film.
Murder on the Orient Express is so committed to its old-fashioned sensibilities that some viewers may find the proceedings to be lacking in the twists and turns that modern audiences are used to, but Green keeps things moving at a brisk pace and the nearly 2-hour runtime flies by. It is never boring, and it feels like the equivalent of a fun summer read. What more can you ask for in a film like this? The climactic reveal may not pack as much of a wallop as it did in 1934, but it injects the film with a necessary moment of emotional resonance that elevates it above more shallow entries in the genre. Admittedly, I probably enjoyed the film more because I have never read Christie’s novel or seen Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film adaptation of it, thereby retaining a somewhat necessary element of surprise. It will be interesting to see if it holds up on a repeat viewing.
For those looking for an involving murder mystery that is respectful of its source material and filled with an all-star cast, look no further than Murder on the Orient Express. With any luck the film will find an audience (20th Century Fox seems to have confidence that it will, as it ends with a tease for a sequel featuring one of Poirot’s other well-known cases), especially seeing as how it is representative of a type of film we don’t really see anymore. I’d be all for a new Poirot film every couple of years. Lord knows there’s plenty of source material to draw from.