OnScreen Review: 'Murder on the Orient Express'

OnScreen Review: 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a famous piece of literature that has been adapted several times for the film and television, perhaps most famously in 1974 by famed director Sidney Lumet featuring an all-star cast which garnered several Oscar nominations and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Ingrid Bergman. After a few television adaptations in recent years, actor-director Kenneth Branagh has brought the story back to the big screen, sadly with only modest result.

Branagh stars as the world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, with arguably the most outlandish moustache the character has ever been given. At times, frankly, it is hard to look at anything else on screen but that ‘stache. It’s over the top absurd, and I still can’t decide if that is a good thing or not. The majority of the film takes place onboard the titular Orient Express, where a murder takes place (also something you may have gleaned from the title), and Poirot is called upon by the conductor of the train, Bouc (Tom Bateman) to solve the case. The murder victim is a man known as Ratchett, portrayed by Johnny Depp.

Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express captures much of the spirit of the 1974 film’s spirit in terms of casting. This film may not boast the highest of heights as the original film did with the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Richard Widmark, et al., but it’s an impressive cast list in 2017 nonetheless. This train includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman and Lucy Boynton among its inhabitants. Pfeiffer, an actress I’m a huge fan of, gets a chance to shine at times, especially toward the end.

Frankly, there are too many characters to go into any great depth here, which is also a bit of a problem for the film. The biggest difficulty with writing about this film is that spending too much time on the plot would give away too much of the film. Essentially, though, because of the contained nature of the moving train and the ambiguous evidence, everyone on the train is a potential suspect for being the murderer.

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Giving away too much is also a problem the film cannot overcome. A detective story is best when it keeps a viewer or reader on their toes and guessing until the very end. Revealing too much can make the ending anti-climactic, putting in a surprise reveal without enough breadcrumbs or clues sprinkled throughout the story can feel like a cheat. The reveals from interrogations and various clues leaves little to the imagination when the end of the film arrives. Try as he might, Branagh is bringing little new to the table here.

Knowing the ending can also dampen the experience, and Murder on the Orient Express is a very well-known story. I frankly cannot recall if I’ve seen the 1974 film, read the plot synopsis of the story on Wikipedia, or had a general knowledge of the ending of the story that I picked up from elsewhere over time, but knowing the outcome made everything a foregone conclusion by the end. There was not much enjoyment to be had in seeing how Poirot arrived at the conclusion.

The one thing they do to try and make things interesting is dive a bit into the character of Poirot. Branagh portrays him as a man who is particular about perfection and balance. This applies to how he investigates cases as well, and part of what allows him to see what others do not see. It’s an itch that he has to scratch, part of his drive in solving cases, which makes for a slightly interesting coda to the story and having to deal with such a difficult case.

Hercule Poirot is a character that right up there with Sherlock Holmes and Colombo when it comes to the best detectives in popular culture. There have been quite a few Sherlock interpretations in the last few years that have injected some life into the familiar character. Poirot is less familiar, and I’m not suggesting that what the film needed was a modernization of the story, but overall the film is going over territory that has already been covered without saying anything new or fresh. The film looks immaculate and boasts an impressive, all-star cast, but fails to live up to the expectations of the casts that it boasts or the story that it has to tell.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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