Murder on the Orient Express review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
What matters in a mystery movie, specifically for being based on a revered novel with a familiar detective? In my particular case, it’s character. Having been beaten over the head these past few decades from Masterpiece Theater and BBC mysteries, the grander ones stand out because of the performances. On this basis, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express should work for the talent he assembles and the beauty he places in his cinematography. It should work, in theory.
The most significant fault is that Branagh seems to have so much faith in the story itself that he falls back on a subtleness for the acting. This time the detective of Hercule Poirot, played by Branagh himself, is a more quiet and conflicted man than his usual quirky self. He has his OCD traits of demanding the perfect eggs for breakfast and that both his shoes be muddied by excrement if he’s already taken one step in filth. Branagh’s version, however, tries to make him older and more contemplative with extreme bluntness. Early on, a policeman asks about how Poirot’s brain works and he plainly spells out how an imperfect world cofounds him. Adding to his distance from others is some lost love and an obsession with Charles Dickens.
After resolving another case in the Middle East, Poirot hops aboard the Orient Express for a relaxing transit to London, but trouble seems to follow him. The art huckster Sam Ratchett (Johnny Depp) has come to Poirot seeking protection. That’s not Poirot’s career, unfortunately, as he mostly deals with solving murder mysteries. So when Ratchett is mysteriously stabbed during the night, Poirot is on the case, despite an I’m-too-old-for-this reluctance.
The suspects aboard the train are all questionable characters, but far too aloof. Aside from brief introductions shots, we know about as much as the suspects as Poirot does. This, unfortunately, creates an unfair guessing game where the audience doesn’t get to play along with the clues. There are so many suspects that the film only has time to showcase each actor for one or two moments of questioning. As such, the likes of Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Judi Dench feel wasted in a film where most of their lines involve answering Poirot’s queries.
Where Branagh’s direction shines best is in his assembly of shots. When Ratchett’s body is first discovered, the sequence is shot entirely overhead with the audience peering directly down at the scene of the crime. In Poirot’s opening mystery, he reveals his findings to a captive audience in an astounding vista shot. For as silly as it is to imagine how it came to be, the climax where Poirot solves the crime with all the suspects gathered is unforgettable in the setting, with Branagh behind a glowing train and the defendants all seated at a table.
I would commend Murder at the Orient Express for being so beautiful to look at, but there’s an unshakable distance with the audience in these scenes. Notice how Poirot’s Middle East mystery showcases more of the landscape than Poirot himself, refusing to let us see his deductive expressions and mannerisms, also making me question how anyone seated in the back of the crowd could hear him without a microphone. And what of the reveal of the Orient Express murder, where we cannot even see look of shock and confusion on the faces of the passengers when seen over their shoulders. Why does Branagh want to hide his characters when they’re all played by A-list talent? All that’s left at that point is the mystery itself which does little to be shocking or surprising past the written contents that are performed more like a dry stage play than an engaging film. Even with the inclusion of avalanches, derailed trains, gunfights, and an extra stabbing, this mystery comes so standardly in a tone that even the alternative resolution doesn’t come off as shocking as it should. Branagh takes this material so seriously as though he were making more of an opera than a movie, resulting in a version of Agatha Christie’s novel that pales in comparison to the other theatrical film and even the Masterpiece Theater TV episode.