Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Tom Bateman, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom, Jr., Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Lucy Boynton, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Marwan Kenzari
When it comes to filmmaking, Kenneth Branagh is unusually hit-or-miss. There are moments where he makes some brilliant directorial choices, and others that leave you scratching your head wondering what he was thinking. In Murder on the Orient Express, there are instances where he films a few characters from behind a window pane that’s designed in such a way that, if you look at them in the right angle, will split their image into twos or threes. It’s an elaborate camera trick that works because it serves as an appropriate visual metaphor for what is truly one of the most tragic cases in the career of Agatha Christie’s celebrated Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh).
Then, there’s the scene where Poirot and a few others discover the murder victim in a train car, which is filmed in a high angle shot that keeps the focus entirely on the tops of the character’s heads. This is distracting. This is the turning point in the narrative, the moment that propels out hero into action, and we’re kept at a distance for the majority of the scene because we remained focused to the character’s heads. He’ll use a similar high angle shot when Poirot looks over the body and the crime scene, but it makes far more sense when it’s used there. The scene where the murder victim is found is ruined because of that odd choice in cinematography.
In spite of a few badly directed moments, Murder on the Orient Express is, for the most part, a well-made and good looking film. The movie was shot in 65mm Panavision by Haris Zambarloukos, and there are shots here of almost breathtaking beauty. Credit must also be given to production designer Jim Clay, set decorator Rebecca Alleway, a team of art directors, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne for creating intoxicatingly rich period details, as well as composer Patrick Doyale for contributing with an appropriately moody score.
Branagh’s decision to cast himself as the famed Hercule Poirot also pays off. Branagh is an immensely talented actor, and he captures Poirot’s quirks and humanity in a way that feels natural and convincing (I especially like the face mask he wears that seems tailored for his mustache). The cast is comprised of A-list actors and actresses, and there is not a single miscast member anywhere. Everyone does fine work with the material they’ve been given. In fact, there is so much about Murder on the Orient Express that works that it’s a shame the movie is ultimately let down by Michael Green’s screenplay.
The film’s opening scene is easily its best, as Poirot finishes up a case in Jerusalem that involves the theft of a religious relic, where the three main suspects are a priest, a rabbi, and an imam. Before revealing who the culprit is, Poirot sticks his cane into the Wailing Wall for reasons that won’t be made clear until after he reveals who the culprit is. He then has a private talk with a local police officer, where it’s revealed that he sees the world the way that it should be, and is bothered when there is something seemingly out of place. This is both a blessing and a curse, because while it helps him with his job, it also makes it intolerable to him when there is something out of balance.
So far, so good. We get a good sense of who the character is, and there’s an added level of intrigue when Poirot frequently stares mournfully at a picture of a lost love named Katherine. Poirot wants nothing more than to enjoy a vacation after finishing his case in Jerusalem, but when he’s called back to London to work on another case, he’s finds a seat on the Orient Express thanks to his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), who works on the train. Hoping to simply enjoy the train ride reading and laughing heartily at his copy of A Tale of Two Cities, Poirot is soon approached by a shady businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who claims to be in danger and wants to hire Poirot for protection. Poirot brutally refuses the man, one reason being “I do not like your face!”
The next day, Ratchett is found murdered, stabbed 12 times in a chaotic fashion. What’s more, an avalanche derails the front of the train and brings it to a halt on top of a high railroad bridge. Not wanting the police to be involved because they might jump to biased conclusions, Bouc hires Poirot to solve the murder.
The list of suspects is certainly a long one: There’s Rachett’s secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) and valet Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi); Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), a governess who’s in a relationship with Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) that she wants to keep a secret because the good doctor is black, and this is the 1930s, and such things were not really heard of in those days; Gerhard (Willem Dafoe), a racist Austrian professor; the snooty Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her humble maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), a very secretive missionary; Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a sex-crazed society lady; the barbiturate addicted Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and her ill-tempered husband Rudolph (Sergei Polunin); and Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who is perhaps the most forgettable character in the group.
To reveal further details about the mystery would be cruel and unfair. What can be said is that because this case in particular has impacted the lives of so many of the characters on that train, the supporting players need to stand out as something more than interchangeable background players. It’s by no means an easy task, and unfortunately, it’s one that Michael Green fails at. There isn’t a single suspect on the train who captures our interest for a second, and because of this, the proceedings tend to grow tedious. The revelation in the end is certainly dramatic, but it falls flat because (in spite of the cast’s best efforts), we were never given a reason to care.
If this movie does well in the box office, it might give Branagh an excuse to come back and play this character again. If that’s the case, then I truly hope this movie does well, because Branagh is absolutely right for the role, and there are many of Poirot books that I would like to see on the big screen. There’s a moment in the film where Poirot say that there’s good and evil, “and nothing in between.” Agatha Christie’s terrific novel made an excellent case for the existence of that space in between Poirot said doesn’t exist. The movie makes a valiant effort to do the same, but it ultimately comes up short.
Final Grade: ** ½ (out of ****)
Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements