'Murder on the Orient Express'
In the grand scheme of movies that needed to exist in 2017, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ ranks somewhere near the bottom of the list. There have been a variety of adaptations of this Agatha Christie whodunnit over the years and Kenneth Branagh’s new version doesn’t add much beyond modern movie spectacle.
While it’s a charmingly mounted all-star mystery that satisfies in all the ways this sort of movie should, it’s also hard to imagine a young audience embracing this thing. Nor will the older crowd get much new from a story that they likely already know. Still, as far as unnecessary Agatha Christie movies go, it could be worse. Branagh goes through the motions well; he just never quite justifies why this new edition of the story should exist in the first place.
Well, there’s one obvious reason that Branagh has chosen to make this movie. He’s using his unexpected late career heft as a blockbuster director (still riding those ‘Thor’ and ‘Cinderella’ coattails) to try and craft a star vehicle for himself and maybe even a franchise. The film opens with a long and oddly suspenseful introduction to his character, Hercule Poirot, the mustachioed super-detective at the center of a many an Agatha Christie mystery. His Poirot is an OCD perfectionist whose obsession with natural order and balance means that any minor imbalance bothers him to the core. That means if the guy steps in poo with one shoe, he’ll immediately need to poo up the other shoe to ensure a satisfying shoe to poo ratio. It also means that he’s impeccable at noticing small details that could prove to be unexpected evidence in solving a crime. Pretty nifty detective quality, huh? Branagh sure leans into it, but sadly leans even further into Poirot’s cartoony French accent, massive moustache, and potential as a one-liner factory. As a result, Branagh plays the role like a slightly more serious and sincere Inspector Clouseau. If possible, that’s an even more annoying choice than it sounds.
Thankfully, Branagh plays his big old-fashioned murder mystery broadly enough to contain his overblown performance style. At times, it almost feels as though the director and his cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ approach to designing the visuals was to have a competition over who could come up with the most absurd and canted camera angle and stick to it. Admittedly, shooting a movie that almost entirely takes place in a series of nearly identical train cars requires a little visual imagination and stylization to avoid becoming dull. With that in mind, they probably made the right decision to go big on the camera moves. Even so, there are times when the camera flies above and around the action in such odd and even deliberately obscured and unclear ways that it proves more a distraction than an abstraction.
He’s also assembled a hell of a cast to play murder mystery with. Johnny Depp plays the a-hole who becomes a corpse, while the train full of suspects includes the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer’s single lady on the prowl, Penélope Cruz’s missionary, Willem Dafoe’s semi-Nazi, Daisy Ridley’s governess, Judi Dench’s princess, Olivia Colman’s maid, and Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi as a pair of shifty-eyed former employees of the victim. Those are some famous faces and talented performers to play with, every bit an equal of the all-star cast at the core of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 edition of this story. They all run through the motions of playing suspicious and innocent figures caught up in a claustrophobic mystery with a few too many secrets. Some are wasted (Dench, Ridley) and others thrive in the stylized setting. (Pfeiffer chews her scenery with visible joy.) Like the overblown cinematography and craft, Branagh is clearly enamored with all of the toys at his disposal in the cast and wants to let them all cut loose, for better or worse. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ likely isn’t the best acted movie of the year, but it’s the single Hollywood production with the most acting. That’s fun at times and irritating at others – which sums up the movie as a whole, really.
It’s clear the Branagh and the team that he’s assembled enjoyed themselves immensely while bringing ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ to the screen in its most expensive iteration yet. Every actor and crew member gets a chance to show off and the film does somehow feel like a combination of a modern Hollywood blockbuster and an antiquated drawing room mystery. The plot holds up to scrutiny with a grand reveal that continues to satisfy despite a few inevitable Scooby-Doo clichés. This is likely the best version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ that could be created these days, but acknowledging that is not the same thing as suggesting that this is an exciting movie worth rushing out to see. It’s still the sort of story that should only exist in classy and dull BBC broadcasts, and all the star faces and CGI effects add little to the proceedings.
Most irritating of all, the movie ends in a way that prematurely announces Branagh’s intention to spin this thing off into a full-on Hercule Poirot cinematic franchise. We don’t need that even though it explains why a studio like Fox would be interested in the first place. (“You mean it’s like a comic book franchise but for underpaid movie stars and bored seniors? Sold!”). In a world where studios are desperate to develop franchises rather than films, dipping into the Agatha Christie pool is a sign of desperation that hopefully won’t stretch any further. A middling mystery thriller is one thing, but a whole series of them is something that we desperately don’t need. It’s pretty damn unlikely that enough people will show up to ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ for that to happen, but it’s worth mentioning just in case.