‘Murder on The Orient Express’ Is A Gorgeous But Somewhat Mundane Ride

by Ben Martin

Murder on The Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel is considered to be one of the cornerstones of mystery and detective fiction. Thus, the story is also considered to be one of Christie’s masterworks, along with And Then There Were None, A.K.A., Ten Little Indians. Despite being a relatively avid reader of mysteries since my adolescence, I must admit having never to read any of this legendary author’s work. However, the reputation of Christie’s work rings through the annuls of her chosen sub-genre. As a result, her stories have been adapted into other mediums many times over.
The one that’s been directly adapted more than any other title of the author is Murder on The Orient Express. Since its publication, it’s been adapted to stage and for TV numerous times; oddly enough, though the story has only been adapted to film twice. First, there was Sidney Lumet’s highly renowned 1974 adaptation. Then, of course, there’s this year’s version, brought to us by Kenneth Branagh (of the upcoming Artemis Fowl).
The version in question, like all those before it, follows the legendary Inspector Hercule Poirot, played by Branagh himself. Poirot has never come up against a case he couldn’t solve. In fact, the film opens with him addressing what seems to be a very complicated theft case. Alas, after solving the case, the audience is shown a preceding string of “unsolvable” cases before it, and the detective is tired. Because of this, he seeks respite, thinking he’ll find it on a quiet train ride. Intent on some R&R, Poirot boards The Orient Express for three days of peaceful reading. However, the trip proves not to be as peaceful as the inspector expects when one of his fellow passengers turns up dead. Thankfully, the world’s greatest detective is on the case.
Much like Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, Orient is an ensemble piece. As such, the characters that fill this train are portrayed by a star-studded cast which includes: Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Such a cast draws esteem, making this a sort of event picture. Furthermore, most of them have had their turn in comic-book films or ones akin to them. This cast portrays passengers that range vastly in their personalities, as well as their stations in life. The majority of the cast give excellent and engrossing performances, making you wonder who they are and what their motive(s) might be, should they be the culprit. That is, with the sole exception of Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), who is hamming it up more than a holiday dinner here.
Then again, that has been the actor’s approach as of late. While I would still call Mr. Depp one of my favorite actors, he’s becoming less so with every recent performance he gives. For an actor who used to provide invested and exciting performances, I just don’t feel that Depp cares anymore. More often than not, it seems he’s playing caricatures of characters he has played before. Despite being an ensemble piece with such a cast, I ultimately feel they are all short-changed because of Branagh playing the protagonist of the group. Because of his dual position as director and de facto lead, it feels that Branagh focuses on himself a little more than he should. Thus, lessening the impact of the ensemble. Though, the actor/director does give a fun performance as Poirot. On a related note, Poirot’s mustache should get its own credit. This facial hair is so aesthetically interesting that it eventually becomes distracting, at least to me.

Despite the cast, I don’t feel that they are the real stars of this picture. Instead, the production design/art direction by Dominic Masters, Andrew Ackland-Snow, Will Coubrough, Charlo Dalli, and Jordana Finkel; along with the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos (Thor), steal the show. These expertly crafted elements, make you feel as if you’re in the movie. Much of the time, I felt as if I was on The Orient Express or out in the cold. As such, the mystery is enhanced and makes this picture worth seeing on the big screen. However, such craft along with the cast doesn’t entirely save this movie.
This film’s real issues are the pacing and the mystery itself. Despite being engrossed in the picture by its design, I could still feel the pace quite a bit. There were many times where I felt the pacing made the unraveling mystery begin to feel mundane. The mystery itself is interesting enough, though its conclusion is shaky and hurts it a bit. At the time, I’m sure the motive and answers to the mystery were revolutionary. And, it should be said that it still works fine, you can just see the holes in it all. Having said all that, the mystery and its plot are still good enough to carry the picture, but by a small margin.

Despite my issues with the film, I found it to be decent and entertaining enough. Furthermore, I’m glad that it was my first experience with any of Agatha Christie’s work. After seeing this, I would like to read the novel on which it’s based.  Plus, I hold onto the hope that Branagh can improve on this formula with his recently announced sequel, Murder on the Nile. I’d recommend seeing this film solely for how beautiful it is. Even if you watch it in your home theater, though it’s not going to be as impactful. In closing, I might not take another ride on The Orient Express, but I’m certainly glad I got a ticket and boarded for the trip once.

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