by Tony Di Nizo
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express is the latest film adaptation of the famous crime thriller originally published as a novel by Agatha Christie. The story was previously adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974 and was an incredibly successful film. It was nominated for a few Oscars, including Albert Finney for his role as Hercule Poirot and Ingrid Bergman who actually took home the gold for her performance as Greta. That leaves this new adaptation with high expectations to live up to. Branagh has put together an all-star cast with the hopes of engaging and thrilling modern audiences. For the most part, Branagh is incredibly successful.
The film follows famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) who is looking forward to taking a vacation after solving a case in Jerusalem. However, his vacation is cut short when he arrives in Istanbul. He is suddenly summoned to London when another case demands some attention. Hercule’s friend Mr. Bouc (Tome Bateman), offers Poirot a seat on the Orient Express so he can go to London and take the case.
On the train, Hercule is introduced to some of the other passengers including mobster Samuel Ratchet (Johnny Depp), governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) among others. Initially, the trip is peaceful until one night when the train gets derailed by an avalanche. Hercule discovers that someone on the train has been murdered. Concluding that one of the passengers is the killer, Poirot sets out to solve the case.
Undoubtedly one of the film’s strongest aspects is its technical achievement. The film is full of visual splendor and is a true wonder to behold on screen. The production design is sharp, slick, and lavish. The cinematography nails the look and feel of the time period while still providing tons of visual interest and spectacle This is a large achievement considering that the majority of the film takes place in compact train cars.
Supplementing the impressive work behind the camera, the performances shine in front of the lens. Branagh is exceptional as the lead. Going into the film, I was nervous that it would come off as a vanity project since Branagh is both directing and starring. However, he turns in an incredibly charming and charismatic performance. His Hercule is layered and he does an excellent job balancing and playing off of the film’s lighter and darker moments. His portrayal is a lot of fun and, overall, he is a really compelling hero to watch in action.
Unfortunately, Hercule Poirot is the only main character that receives any development. The rest of the supporting cast plays out as just supporting. There are some bright spots, but it feels like they are there just there to simply round out the ensemble. Johnny Depp does a great job putting some realism and depth into his character. Ratchett could have felt cartoony and cheesy, but with very little screen time, Depp is able to present an interesting character that leaves a lasting impression, even after he exists the story. Michelle Pfeiffer lights up the screen and does a really excellent job. As for the rest of the cast, they all do a nice job with the material, it is just unfortunate that the script undercuts their development in favor of Poirot.
The script has other problems as well. Screenwriter Michael Green’s failed attempt at fleshing out the background characters causes the end reveal to be hollow. Because we do not know these characters, we are not invested in them. Therefore, the major twist does not have the impact that it deserves. Major on screen talents like Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Judi Dench felt underused, which literally derails the films momentum.
The pacing of the story is also another issue that comes right from the pages of the screenplay. The film starts off at this wonderful and breezy pace. It is fun, interesting, and does an excellent job at grabbing the audience. Unfortunately, when the train is stopped, so does the pacing. The film moves at a glacial pace towards its climax. While I was never bored, the film does a really good job at keeping your interest with the visuals and performances, it just feels like it unnecessarily drags.
Overall, Murder on the Orient Express is a solid adaption. The film is elevated by the outstanding performances and visuals. For those who are in the mood for something to cleanse your pallet from the slew of holiday blockbusters hitting theaters, this is an excellent choice. If more attention was given to the supporting cast, and the film was more evenly paced, the movie would have been something really special. Nevertheless, I would recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in checking it out. If you are looking for something to do on a cold winter evening, hopping on the Orient Express is a very good idea.