“My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”
Though it is certainly lavish and grandiose, director Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s revered 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express holds a quaint charm. True, the locations are extravagant, the production designs aren’t minuscule, the period costuming is decedent and it’s loaded with celebrities, but there’s something refreshingly simple and sincere about this newest version of the classic murder mystery. Located almost entirely on a luxurious, eventually snow-caved train on the mountainside, this exquisite, overcompensating old-fashioned blockbuster, shot in 65 mm, harkens back to a simpler, nostalgic era of cinema, one that wasn’t as preoccupied with world saving and fussy cinematic universe-building exercises.
It’s not as clean cut as it could be, and it’s definitely not as straightforward as it should be, but this giddily fun, perpetually uneven cinematic revisioning is an engaging, stylish, and nicely sophisticated viewing. Handsome and well-tailored, if a bit frantic and overindulgent, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express won’t be remembered or adored as quickly nor as fondly as a few of its predecessors, but it’s an endearing, enjoyable diversion nevertheless. It’s an entertaining blend of scopes and scales, resulting in the kind of cinematic lark we’re no longer accustomed to seeing on the big screen today. It’s no mystery why it works.
Being the multi-talented gentlemen he is, Branagh not only directs but stars in the lead role as Hercule Poirot, a literary character with more than a few appearances on the page and on screens both big and small. A deliberate, distinguished detective with no shortage of acclaim and recognition to his name, Poirot claims himself to be the greatest detective in the world, and there’s good reason to believe that’s the case. He sees the world through its imperfections, which is expectedly a blessing and a curse. It has resulted in several crimes being solved throughout the decades, but it gives the man who solves them zero time for rest and solitude. Tired and overspent, Poirot wants nothing more than to enjoy some alone time with only his thoughts to tide him over and Charles Dickens to preoccupy his ever-racing mind. He figures a trip on the Orient Express would dilute his worries, but of course, there simply wouldn’t be a movie if that happened.
During a dizzying snowstorm, a heinous crime is committed on the train. When the vessel is delayed and taken off the tracks, Poirot wastes no time interviewing each passenger and searching their quarters, hoping to find his latest criminal in the midst. Passengers onboard the Orient Express include Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), her maid, Hildegarde (Olivia Colman), Dr. Arbuthhnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Miss Estravados (Penelope Cruz), Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Count and Countess Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton), Bouc (Tom Bateman), Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his valet, Masterman (Derek Jacobi), his secretary, MacQueen (Josh Gad). Among these assorted personalities lies the killer and their slain. It’s up to Poirot to discover who performed this crime.
This Orient Express is bold and theatrical, both to its benefit and to its fault. Tasked with adapting a novel nearly a century old to a younger audience, Branagh takes more than a handful of liberties with the material, adding more stakes and changing different details to throw the viewer off, even if they’re familiar with the text. The result, however, makes the movie busier and noisier than it should be. As mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s more fun to be taken on an enclosed thriller than to amp up the stakes with more chases and broadened locales. Part of what made Christie’s original source material so enjoyable was the train location, and how Poirot solved this crime in forwarding motion. By stopping the train, it does give this Murder on the Orient Express more time to breathe, but it doesn’t matter when it comes at the risk of not fully developing its central characters and their individual motives, and it also hurts by killing the suspense. Also, it provides some special effects that look better suited inside The Polar Express instead of the Orient Express. There are many shots where the train looks beautiful, but there are also shots where it looks like it’s riding its way straight out of Industrial Light and Magic, even if it’s not done rendering.
But the cast is all uniformly good, as you would expect, even if there are no real standouts. Braganah, Ridley, and Gad get the most screentime of the bunch, for comprehensible reasons, while Depp is thankfully used to his scuzziest potential. If you’re still going to cast Depp in 2017, make him as scuzzy as possible. Pfeiffer is good as well, and sadly Dench, Dafoe, Colman, Cruz and Odom Jr. mostly get lost in the shuffle. But when you have as many balls to juggle as Branagh, that’s understandable. Though it should be said that the Orient Express is often more a character and fixture in this movie than some of the passengers, with many loving shots dedicated to its beauty and refinery. One particular establishing tracking shot towards the beginning serves as a highlight in the film. It’s a shame that the characters aren’t always given that same level of love and attention, but it’s apparent that Branagh is either overworked or burdened by studio commands that insist upon more action beats and higher stakes. After all, Branagh doesn’t quite get the same luxuries as Quentin Tarantino in The Hateful Eight. Not every director gets away with filming their entire multi-million movie in snowy, secluded quarters without some big notes. And that’s a shame since Murder on the Orient Express works best when it isn’t trying to impress upon itself.
More decent than excellent, Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express might ultimately disappoint readers hoping to find the definitive interpretation of Christie’s beloved novel, but when taken at face value, the film isn’t lacking in simple pleasures. The cast, even when they’re underused, are a joy to watch. The characters, while never as fleshed out as they were in the pages, remain captivating. The settings, while sometimes given too much exposure at the risk of further developing the characters, are still very gorgeous. It’s a bumpy but nevertheless agreeable trip. Those wishing for something more focused and postured will understandably be upset, but those of us simply looking for some refined pleasures will be sure to stay aboard until the next stop. Sometimes it’s just good fun to tuck yourself in a traditional murder capper.