A polished and enjoyable adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel that falls short of greatness
A tale lifted from the pages of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. A new depiction of one of the most famous literary detectives. Sumptuous production values. An all star cast. And a well regarded director in Kenneth Branagh, who also takes on the lead role. The ingredients are all there for something special, and the film certainly has all the trappings of an impressive affair, but somehow fails to build up the head of steam needed to make a real mark.
After an opening in 1930s Jerusalem, a sequence at the Wailing Wall showcasing the talents of Hercule Poirot in solving the theft of a religious artifact, we follow the sleuth to Istanbul, where he is recruited by the British government to solve another case. The Belgian boards the famous Orient Express to take him on a cross country trip to Calais, then onward to London. On board the detective is intent on a period of relaxation after an intense period of work, but this is disrupted when a murder crime is committed on board. A body is discovered in a locked compartment after the train is brought to a halt after an avalanche. The occupants of the compartment are the only possible suspects, a diverse mix of people that Poirot is tasked with investigating, to determine who is the killer before the train resumes its journey.
The header image, as well as the wealth of marketing, does an admirable job of introducing us to the suspects, as well as the notables who portray them. Fussy Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her meek maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); winsome governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), who seemingly has some connection to Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr); the pious Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz); the manhunting Mrs Hubbard (a riotous Michelle Pfeiffer); the reclusive pairing of Russian dancer Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addled wife, Countess Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton); German academic (and racist) Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); car salesman businessman Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); and capping it all off, the corrupt American art dealer, Ratchett (Johnny Depp), flanked by his entourage consisting of butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi) and secretary Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad).
Such illustrious players add to the old school feel of the film. It’s not often you get such talent assembled within an ensemble. But as the above paragraph demonstrates, there’s a lot to fit in, and most of the characters are only faintly sketched out. Ridley and Odom Jr. carve out a nice bit of authenticity in their parts, the former showing plenty of fire in her repartee with Branagh’s Poirot, while Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi manage to make an impact with minimal screentime. Also, between this and mother! earlier this year, one can only hope we’re at the start of a Pfeiffer revival. The rest are sadly lost in the mix, relegated to looking pouty or worried while sitting in a train cart.
There’s plenty of sumptuous imagery for these folks to gaze upon at least. Branagh works in sweeping shots of Istanbul, or the snow covered path of the train, to great effect. There’s a old school, golden age feel at times to the luxuriousness of it all, aided by the film actually being shot on 65mm film. Such a move is appreciated, although the embrace of old school approach would have been better served using more practical effects than much of the CGI on display here. The aesthetic is also undermined by the use of some poorly worked flashback scenes that feel cheap, and overhead shots that deprive the film of any detail or emotional impact. The score too at times feels rousing; at others it is overtly intrusive. Tinkling piano notes distract from several key scenes.
Branagh’s approach to the subject matter is what really prevents the film from being a modern classic. Despite a few changes to update the racial elements of the tale and streamline the plot and characters somewhat, these efforts are undermined by the lack of energy the film has. The murder doesn’t give the film the impetus it should, instead unfolding in a rather perfunctory manner. It’s capped by an ending that feels strangely emotionless. Poirot’s rousing speech to the assembled passengers as he reveals “whodunnit” is flat and awkward rather than eliciting the desired response. This Murder on the Orient Express feels somewhat constrained by its concept, rather then elevating it, never truly using the talent at its disposal.
The fundamental misstep seems to be in how Poirot himself is handled. He’s less grouchy than iterations past, imbued with a quirkier edge, one that makes him a little more adorable. A man chucking at Dickens, topped off with a mustache guard while he sleeps, with an unevenly crow-bared in lost love backstory to further engender you to him. This comes with a move in focus from his analytical logic towards a more emotional portrayal — a character who inserts himself into affairs rather than standing on the outside and watching things unfold. It skews the tale and the film, making it more about him than the case. The end result is a more endearing lead, but a plot that eventually loses steam.
Despite these flaws, The Murder on the Orient Express was certainly enjoyable. Reminiscent of the indulgence, or comfort, of watching a prestigious BBC special on TV, in front of the fire at Christmas. A polished bit of nostalgia, one that in its closing moments seems to set itself up for a sequel, another trip and case for the Belgian detective. Even with the missteps here, it’s a journey I’d happily take.
Murder on the Orient Express is in theaters from November 9th