I approached Murder On The Orient Express having virtually no familiarity with Agatha Christie’s work. For this film to be successful, director and star #Kenneth Branagh knew he must reach out to ignoramuses like me. But unfortunately, in his attempts to do so he may have ended up underwhelming both Christie diehards and casual observers.
The year is 1934, and after solving a mystery at the Wailing Wall, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), the Belgian detective of international repute, must board the Orient Express on his travels from Jerusalem to London. Tragedy strikes the train the same night when an avalanche leaves it derailed and with a murder to solve.
At no point was I especially intrigued as to who the killer was, which for a two-hour murder mystery is an issue. Neither is there any real doubt Poirot will solve it, leaving any enjoyment to be had from character interactions and the how of Poirot’s discoveries.
The film has a multitude of stars onboard, each with their part to play in the plot. Unfortunately, there are a few characters too many, which does shrink the screen time for each of them. I’ve read that Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz) is an addition not in the novel, perhaps an unnecessary one. That said, the mix of accents and acting techniques blends well enough, and Branagh is a consistent and affable screen presence.
‘Orient Express’ carries the intensity of playing ‘Cluedo’ with the grandparents
Branagh is also careful not to define the whole film as Poirot talking to people in compartments, and there are some decent exterior shots, and even a chase sequence (though why Poirot ever needed to risk his life strolling along the top of a carriage in a separate scene is never explained).
A stand-out performer is Johnny Depp as the sleazy, grasping crook Ratchett. Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley) has a few decent scenes with Poirot, but her relationship with Col. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) never holds. The decision to change the race of this character from the novel also leads to groan-inducing sanctimoniousness – reeking more of tokenism than high drama.
Some problems with the film must surely derive from its source material. There can be few premises more contrived than a complicated murder being assembled while the perpetrators are fully aware of the greatest detective in the world sleeping a couple of doors down. If a modern screenwriter had conceived this story they would have been laughed out of Hollywood. Perhaps I’m just being a sourpuss who should have a bit more fun with the whole thing, but the plot convolutions in some parts undoubtedly make for an uneven journey.
Murder On The Orient Express needed to either embrace the campness of the whole thing or dive into the darkness of it all. Be modernistic or an unashamed throwback.
As it is, there’s Poirot sleeping with his moustache-holder, there’s a Lindbergh-esque tale of a baby abducted and murdered. It’s ‘Miss Marple’ meets ‘Mindhunter’. The Jerusalem scenes at the beginning especially had a BBC Sunday night, Steven Moffat, irritatingly chummy feel to them.
The wintery vistas, Branagh’s over-acting moustache, the Christie twists and turns, there’s plenty to take from Murder On The Orient Express. If you’re going to enjoy this film just leave your disbelief at the station and go along for the sedentary ride.