Murder On The Orient Express looks the part and has a great cast, but for me it was a slightly bland and rushed way to treat the old novel.
It’s the late 1930s, and famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) boards the famous Orient Express for a brief holiday from crime solving. Unfortunately for him, a murder occurs on board, and there are a fairly large amount of suspects, with many interesting and surprising revelations to be uncovered.
Branagh directs as well as selfishly (I joke) taking the lead role, directing an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel from the script of Michael Green, and I can’t quibble on the majority of the adaptation, which works hard to maintain the mystery and hidden depths of the characterisation so acclaimed over the decades. I did know the identity of the murderer before I saw the film, which is not recommended in an ideal world, but the film is quite clever in the way it builds tension and doubt, before its final reveal.
What was more interesting and was better for me was the way in which it tried and mostly succeeded in highlighting the moral quandaries at the story’s heart, though its conclusion (Christie’s fault, not Branagh’s) is designed to split opinion (in my case, aggravatingly so). At the root of it, despite the positive elements in how it’s been brought to screen, what the film does not have is the luxury of time. My issue is that it has to juggle so many characters, their motivations and back stories that it hurtles through, when it could have taken more time.
The book can paint the characters in more detail and give them room to breathe, but the film understandably cannot – and this meant many of the more interesting protagonists are given short shrift compared to more prominent yet less engaging ones. Cutting or merging even a few may well have made it work better – but we’ll never know!
Perhaps the biggest issue with Poirot as a character onscreen is every single performance has been from a British actor murdering a Belgian accent. Hiring an actor from Belgium to play the role wouldn’t have been a stretch, but I do appreciate the need for a big name. Branagh’s performance per se isn’t bad – he is a great actor, and his Poirot is a mix of witty humour, amiable bloke and sharp, righteous investigator. However, his accent is preposterous, and his moustache is absolutely ridiculous – hilariously over the top – and these two seemingly spurious elements actually detracted from the character.
There are a lot of actors and actresses to get through, but suffice to say those that made an impact did so for wildly different reasons. Daisy Ridley’s spiky governess was a surprise and a sign that the Star Wars actress is a lot better than many give her credit for, while Michelle Pfeiffer’s slow burn performance as a single older female passenger is multifaceted and complex, and a welcome return (though again, more time would definitely have strengthened this).
Johnny Depp is essentially in pantomime villain mode as slimy gangster Ratchett, but then what else would we expect (he’s cornering it in real life already after all). It’s nice I suppose to see him out of ridiculous make up or costumes, playing a far more average character, though again there is less depth to his performance thanks once more to time restrictions.
The best of the rest include a typically chilly Dame Judi Dench as an imperious princess, a surprisingly underused Derek Jacobi as Ratchett’s put upon footman, a bizarrely schizophrenic turn from Willem Dafoe as a racist Austrian doctor that confounds expectations, and a slippery, pent up performance from Josh Gad as Ratchett’s right hand man (largely known for voicing the snowman in Frozen). A couple of other great actresses are however victims of the sheer size of the cast, Olivia Colman barely registering as Dench’s lady in waiting, and Penelope Cruz a stereotypically pious nun whose interesting past is a vein worth mining, but which really isn’t.
The remainder of the cast, largely unknowns, make even less of an impact, a real shame and yet another reason why the character list should probably have been trimmed. Why hire unknown actors for bitty, tiny roles and then ascribe them equal billing when it’s clear that not only will we not see much of them, but that we have so little time to make a judgement! Of the rest, only Leslie Odom Jr makes an impression as a prim but barely repressed British doctor, facing insults and suspicion on all sides due to his race and the time in which he lives.
An excellent period score from Patrick Doyle does its best to set the scene, largely succeeding, while Haris Zambarloukos’ shiny, evocative lighting is paired with (some) inventive CGI and set design to immerse the viewer in the opulence of the train, as well as the inhospitable nature of its journey. I must also add that the costuming only adds to the high spec feel of the film, with there very rarely being a sense that you are not on the train, in the mountains, with the cast – Branagh’s intelligent use of high definition screens for the train windows is very clever practical effect work in particular.
All in all, for me this film was never going to set the world alight, but it does a good job of adapting a famous story for a modern audience. Branagh’s clear and concise directing, the sumptuous visuals and an array of interesting performances are its saving graces.