I could not simply confine myself to a finite number of words for this review. Murder on the Orient Express was my most anticipated film of year and, therefore, required room. Lots of room…
I think the only way to properly set the stage when discussing Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s game-changing mystery is to briefly discuss my relationship with the two most notable screen iterations of the tale. The 1974 adaptation starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, and a host of others under the direction of Sidney Lumet, is a brilliant film. It’s presentation of the central mystery is engaging; the film’s suspects are beautifully-characterized; and it feels lavish and opulent in the best way possible. The 2010 TV adaptation for Agatha Christie’s Poirot, on the other hand, is a grave disappointment. Despite featuring a moving performance from David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, the made-for-television movie feels incredibly rushed, and its focus on the moral implications of Christie’s mystery feels lackluster.
With all of these thoughts firmly in mind, I went into this latest outing perhaps more excited than I ought to have been. But, why shouldn’t I be excited? Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite actors. He’s also one of my favorite directors. Agatha Christie is my favorite author and Murder on the Orient Express I consider one of her best. The assembled cast – Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr., Judi Dench, et. al. – was the very definition of top-notch. Despite these things, the final product did not match my preconceived notions nor did it match the brilliance of the ’74 original. HOWEVER, Murder on the Orient Express still emerges as both an entertaining and engaging mystery and a finely-crafted film.
Arguably the weakest part of Murder on the Orient Express is its screenplay. While parts of it shine – which I’ll come back to in a minute – its handling of the mystery felt half-baked. I understand that a more swiftly-moving storyline is just the way movies are told nowadays, but the script gave few of the characters the chance to really shine. Whereas in the ’74 original, each suspect had the opportunity to tackle a scene themselves. There were characters in this version who we barely got to meet or interact with at all. Even the handful of pointless changes to the narrative did not bother me as much as the lack of connection the script had with its characters.
Conversely, the screenplay created a beautiful character arc for Branagh’s Poirot. At the outset of the film, Poirot tells us that he sees the world only in black and white; moral ambiguity simply does not exist to him. By the end of the film, however, Poirot is forced to reconsider his stringent worldview. The 2010 adaptation attempted something very similar but the writing herein feels much more genuine. And, as a result, Hercule Poirot feels much more like an actual human being.
The acting across the board was excellent. Michelle Pfeiffer was perfect as the loud American widow accused of husband-hunting abroad. Josh Gad blew me away as the alcoholic Macqueen, secretary to Johnny Depp’s former gangster. Depp himself turned in an intriguing performance making the most of his limited screen-time. Whenever Depp was on screen, I couldn’t help but have my eye drawn to him.
Without doubt, though, the finest performance in the film was delivered by Kenneth Branagh. While David Suchet had 13 seasons to flesh out his portrayal of the Belgian sleuth and I am endeared to Albert Finney from years of watching his performance in the 1974 original, I can objectively say that Branagh turned in one of his best performances, and certainly one of the best as Christie’s detective. Branagh was simply a powerhouse in the film – his Poirot starting out as little more than a caricature and slowing being endowed with more and more humility and depth. Poirot’s transformation, therefore, could perhaps be viewed as the real heart of the movie.
Branagh proved himself just as adept behind the camera too. Of course, confined to the train itself for much of the movie’s runtime called for innovative camerawork, and the use of overhead shots, POV shots, and long-takes made for an incredibly visually stimulating movie. Having chosen to shoot on 65mm and utilizing the most select tools from a cinematographer’s bag of tricks, Branagh made his claustrophobic story feel grand.
Despite what I may have hoped going in, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is not a perfect film. It did not usurp the hallowed 1974 version in my mind, but then again, I probably never thought it would. Branagh’s movie emerges as an engaging mystery/thriller of a kind which movie audiences probably have not seen much of in many years. In a movie market which is today flooded with cookie-cutter action films and superhero knock-offs, one can only hope that Murder on the Orient Express can prove that this type of storytelling is not dead: a movie which challenges its audience and encourages them to put their own little grey cells to work.