The critical consensus to the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s whodunit is that it’s style over substance. That seems a little odd, considering the source material for Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most well regarded murder mysteries of all time, by arguably the greatest mystery writer of all time. There is, to be sure, plenty of style. The film’s director, Kenneth Branagh – who also portrays the story’s world-famous detective, Hercule Poirot – went out of his way to stage a lavish production. The movie, which takes place on the eponymous first-class passenger train, revels in its aristocratic decadence.
At the same time, the substance of Orient Express – Poirot’s sifting of clues to find a killer among the passengers – is engaging, especially for someone unfamiliar with the story, as I was. The biggest critique I can level against the picture is in the characterizations. Michael Green’s screenplay isn’t successful in juggling the numerous central characters, so we never get a deeper sense of who these people are, outside of Poirot. There is also a certain stodginess (for lack of a better word) to much of the action. To be clear, I’m not using the term as a pejorative. Considering the setting of the story, and the history of the source material, I think Branagh was intentional in creating an atmosphere that harkens back to classical Hollywood filmmaking, and if so, he succeeded.
Set in 1934, the self-described “greatest detective in the world,” Hercule Poirot, has just closed a case in Jerusalem, and he’s anxious for a vacation. His employers in London send word via telegram that no such respite is possible. Poirot must return at once to begin work on a new case. He runs into an old friend, Bouc, who is director of the Orient Express passenger train. Bouc offers the detective free passage on the train, in order to get him home as soon as possible.
While settling into his accommodations and greeting his fellow travelers, Poirot is approached by American “businessman” Samuel Ratchett. Calling the unsavory Ratchett a businessman is akin to describing Al Capone as an entrepreneur. The hoodlum asks Poirot for his protection, because he’s afraid his life is in danger. Being an honorable man, and knowing Ratchett’s reputation, the Belgian sleuth declines, telling the mob boss that his life’s work has been to help the victims of people like Ratchett. During the night, Ratchett is indeed murdered; the next morning Poirot learns he was savagely stabbed 12 times. An avalanche has also made the train tracks impassible, and Poirot now has a new case. It must be solved before a crew arrives to clear away the snow, allowing the Orient Express to reach its final destination.
In addition to the extravagant settings, beautifully realized by Branagh’s production designer Jim Clay, Orient Express boasts a first-rate cast. The suspects Poirot must interview in order to solve the crime are portrayed by the likes of Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley, to name just a few. Even someone like Johnny Depp, who for several decades now has been prone to ever more baroque and ridiculous accents and performances, does relatively understated work here. Depp plays the victim Ratchett, and the actor puts on a flat, midwestern Chicago-style speech pattern. While each of the cast turn in fine performances (Branagh, Dafoe, Odom, and Pfeiffer offer the best and most memorable of everyone involved), we spend so little time with each character that’s it’s hard for the movie to offer anything deeper than a basic thumbnail sketch of each one.
I can’t pretend to know if Green’s screenplay putting most of its focus on Poirot was a request from the star and director, Branagh, but the actor makes the most of his considerable screen time. The outrageous moustaches that the character sports are truly inspired. They’re so outrageous, in fact, that I’m forced to use the antiquated plural form of the term. At several points during the movie, I marveled at their architecture, and wondered if any sections of them were load-bearing, so as to keep the whole of the structure intact.
Green and Branagh even try to give Poirot an emotional backstory with the inclusion of what might be a lost love. In a few brief moments, the detective looks longingly at a photograph of a woman as he mournfully calls out the name Katherine. I have it on good authority that nothing like this occurs in the novel. Branagh might be hoping to explore this angle in future Poirot installments, something in which both he and Christie’s great-grandson, James Prichard, who is also Chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd., have expressed interest.
As director, Branagh incorporates camera flourishes that make Orient Express a visual delight. The techniques he employs serve to break up what could have become a monotonous visual landscape, considering the claustrophobic setting of a luxury passenger train. He uses multiple overhead shots that track the characters’ movements around the train. The most effective of these is during the first moments after the body has been discovered.
Branagh also uses a camera device to elegantly bookend the movie. At the beginning, as Poirot is boarding the train, he walks its length, talking to another passenger while making his way to his cabin. The camera tracks the pair, but on the outside of the train. We see them through the train car windows, suggesting that we aren’t yet familiar enough with either the Orient Express or its passengers to be granted a view from inside the train. By the end, when Poirot (and, by extension, the audience) has solved the mystery, Branagh does a very similar slow tracking shot again, but this time it’s from inside the train. We’ve been through the adventure, we’ve solved the crime; we are now allowed access to the point of view we were denied at the start.
Murder on the Orient Express is a solid bit of Hollywood entertainment. It works as a throwback to a very different era in movie history. Despite its weaker aspects, the movie offers a murder mystery that’s both fun and engrossing.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- The thinness of character development doesn't quite overshadow the enjoyment that the story provides, but it's a close call. As far as the creakiness of the storytelling, which more than a few critics have called out, I found it rather charming.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I mentioned how the movie adds a lost love for Poirot. Rach, who is Agatha Christie fan #1, also told me the movie addresses race in a way that is absent in the book. Two of the passengers, Miss Mary Debenham and Dr. Arbuthnot (played by Ridley and Odom Jr., respectively), are sharing a secret love affair, one that is particularly scandalous considering the time period. The book, which is not a period piece, as it was published in 1934, doesn't include anything so salacious (by 1930s standards, at least) as a mixed-race love affair. I give credit to Green for giving the story a modern angle, and addressing the bigotry such a couple in that time (and in some places, this time) encounter.
- Besides Branagh's mustaches, top prize for character design goes to Willem Dafoe's Gerhard Hardman. Dafoe looks like he stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie here.
- There is some rather questionable CGI work in Orient Express. Mostly it has to do with the snow storm that causes the avalanche. It looks cheap and unconvincing.
- Rach was completely flabbergasted when I told her I had no idea what the actual plot of Murder on the Orient Express was outside of, you know, a murder taking place on a train. I just never got into Agatha Christie as a kid.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- "Oh, hai Mark!" James Franco is using the memoir of an actor who was at ground zero for possibly the worst movie ever made, called The Room, as inspiration for his latest project. His movie (and the book it's based on) is called The Disaster Artist, and I'm interested to find out if it has any heart, or if it's just an excuse to laugh at truly inept filmmaking.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Rach had a slight cough when we attended this screening. It was the result of going for a run in cold weather right before we left for the theater. She lightly coughed perhaps five times, total. She was quiet about it, and tried her best not to be a nuisance. The person sitting in front of her did not think so. By their reaction, you would have thought Rach was carrying on a full-volume cell phone conversation. This person put on the BIGGEST show of eye-rolling and passive aggressive half-turning around I have ever witnessed. At one point, this person raised their arm straight up in the air after she coughed as a way to register displeasure. At first, I was really concerned that this person would actually turn and make a scene, something I generally try to avoid. When I finally figured out that all the person in question would do was be supremely passive aggressive, without us having to ever interact with them, I just sat back and enjoyed the show... both of them.