Disclaimer: I have not seen any of the previous iterations of Murder on the Orient Express, nor have I had the pleasure of reading Agatha Christie’s novel on which the films are based. This review is based solely on Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation.
What makes a good mystery? First and foremost is a great lead detective who an audience can relate to, have fun with and feel invited in to join them on their quest to solve the puzzle. Second is an eclectic cast of suspects; each one with their own distinct personality and secrets lying in wait to be discovered and move the detective closer to his final revelation. Third is a bevy of overt and subtle clues and misdirections strewn about that help guide the detective through the case. And finally, there must be a great reveal, one an audience doesn’t see coming but should have with all the clues and information that have been openly provided for all to digest. Kenneth Branagh, director and star of the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express, does everything he can to include every one of these pieces, yet forgets one very key ingredient: a blanket of intrigue.
Orient Express has a lot going for it. There are some fantastic shots that give us a sense of both detachment and claustrophobia; it has plenty of humor and gleeful fun; and it does a nice job of setting up the characters to give each one an air of mystery as it begins to tie all of the pieces together. The problem is, the more the pieces begin to make sense, the more the film loses its fascination. In other words, as all of the clues mount up to the final product, the picture that’s revealed seems extraordinarily dull and uninspired, even though it really isn’t.
That goes to the direction of Branagh, who seems to be running on fumes toward the end of the film. His character, Hercule Poirot, is introduced as a meticulous sort who needs everything around him to be perfect, from the tie you wear to the eggs he eats. This fits well into his skills as a detective, as he has an incredible knack at seeing what doesn’t belong — basically, he knows a lie when he sees one based on his observations of his surroundings and the small details that make up the bigger picture.
He also has a very particular pride about himself, especially when it comes to his very stylized mustache, which he wears a mask over to protect its perfect form while he sleeps. This, too, goes to characterize him as someone who needs everything in his life to be perfect — no flaws, no exceptions. At the same time, Poirot is tired, seeking respite in a long overdue holiday that will hopefully bring peace to the madness he encounters every day. Unfortunately, the world never stops moving, and as he seeks a few days rest traveling to a new case, his train is derailed by a freak avalanche at the same time one of the passengers is murdered. So much for a quiet trip. Though at first he doesn’t want to get involved, because of his prideful, studious nature, he has no other choice but to solve the case before the station agents can dig the train out of the snow.
As Poirot starts to put the pieces together, and his morality is put to the test, fatigue sets in, and not just for the character. Branagh’s own fatigue shows in his direction, which leads to a final reveal that feels more tacked on than anything else. Branagh tries to spin the narrative one way to divert us from the truth by making one of the characters reveal themselves to be the killer to protect another passenger, but then we instantly jump ahead to the final reveal without any coherent transition that helps us understand why Poirot doesn’t believe this passenger or how he ultimately came to his final conclusion.
Branagh aside, everyone else involved is on point throughout the film. Michelle Pfeiffer purrs with sexiness, Johnny Depp finally breaks from his most recent mold of pasty-white caricatures, Daisy Ridley (looking very much like Keira Knightley) and Penelope Cruz add just enough flair to make us care for their characters, and Josh Gad proves that he isn’t just a funny face, delivering one of his best performances. And though Willem Dafoe and Judi Dench aren’t given much to do, what they do with it hits all the right notes, helping build a believable cast of characters that lead perfectly into the final revelations, only to be utterly wasted and sidelined when that revelation happens, unable to provide any support to the accusations whatsoever.
I will say that the first half of the film is intriguing, but not even the ticking clock Branagh puts on the film can save it from losing steam. With all of the talent involved in this project, you’d think it would rise to the challenge and deliver a mind-blowing, killer finale, but instead, the film goes out with a whimper and doesn’t seem to give anyone any true closure, especially Poirot, who’s left to rest on his laurels and defend a decision that he’ll have to live with the rest of his life… one that I’m not sure fits with the character Branagh developed over the course of the film. Whether this film is anything like the book, I don’t know; but as an intriguing mystery, its setup and characters are beautifully crafted while the revelation is poorly executed.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Justice League, Wonder and The Star. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.