Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Michael Green (screenplay by), Agatha Christie (based upon the novel by)
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe
I’ve been itching at the bit to watch Murder on the Orient Express since it’s release a few weeks ago and I’ve finally gotten round to seeing it. I enjoyed this Kenneth Branagh murder mystery for the majority of the time, but it’s not perfect by any means which I will delve into below.
The film opens in the historic city of Jerusalem with the eminent detective Hercule Poirot already immersing himself in a case. A theft has been committed with multiple figures, including a Rabbi, in the frame. This is really an early introduction to the Belgian sleuth, showcasing his reasoning and skills perfectly. He’s able to solve the crime with little difficulty.
This opening is visually arresting, capturing the bustling nature of the city with lovely cinematography and period costumes. This trend continues through the quick jump to Istanbul and onto the opulent train itself. I’ve since discovered that the introduction was a Michael Green addition which didn’t occur in the Christie novel. I enjoyed it.
There’s an early interaction between Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Poirot in Istanbul before a convenient brush with an old acquaintance allows him passage on the ill fated journey. The dodgy businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp) seems to foresee his sticky end (spoiler alert) on the horizon when he asks Hercule to be his personal bodyguard for the duration of the journey over some tea. The request is politely refused. Admirably, he is not a man motivated by money or delicious looking cake.
Hercule is cutting a relaxed figure, settling into his posh quarters, it’s easy to forget this is supposed to be a holiday, when an avalanche derails and blocks the path of the train, leaving it perched precariously on a bridge. It seems Mr. Ratchett’s concerns were justified too because he meets his maker around this point too. The suspicious death, of course, kicks of the whodunnit plot in earnest.
Shortly after the gruesome discovery, which is shielded from the audience, Poirot begins to individually interview the passengers, making it clear they’re all suspects, as he tries to solve the mystery behind the seemingly welcome death of the sleekit Ratchett. He even believes he’s cracked it during a couple of false eureka moments, giving chase to the would be perpetrator and even being shot at, only to be thwarted and left befuddled by the confusing, contradictory accounts from the dozen or so passengers.
I’ve mentioned before on our podcasts that I’m not familiar with the original Agatha Christie novel or any of her work in general. It seems I’m very much in the majority with that one. Nor have I watched the original 1974 movie or the myriad of different tv shows based on this story and I think this proved to be a big factor in my enjoyment of this film. I went in unaware of the ending and without the burden of making comparisons.
Now, I touched upon the visuals in the introduction briefly, but this film in its entirety is incredibly beautiful to my eyes. It was filmed for the most part inside a London studio, on a recreated train carriage, with the scenic CG shots, shot in New Zealand, projected onto the background using some nifty technology and whilst it wasn’t totally convincing at all times, it was more than adequate.
Branagh returned to 65mm film for this release, he of course used it in Hamlet, and he really does manage to capture all the little nuanced, nervous glances on faces, and also utilises every inch of space in the carriage well, intelligently shoot through windows and also mirrors to tell a story with the camera that perfectly added to the often heavy dialogue in scenes. I’ve enjoyed this method before, most notably in the corner flat window scenes in Trainspotting 2.
Now for a few of my gripes. Firstly, the film often moves away from the familiar train setting, which wasn’t particularly welcome for me, as it detracted from and ruined the claustrophobic tension that should be quite unique to this story. Secondly, the decision to line the passengers up outside near the end was perplexing. Finally, my biggest gripe with this film was the way it handled the talented cast they manage to assemble. There was an array of great actors and actresses packed into one train carriage and I was concerned about this prior to seeing it. It’s almost impossible to do them all justice in slightly more than two hours.
This proved to be the case because barring Depp (and he died early on), Michelle Pfeiffer and Branagh himself the rest are sadly criminally underused. Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Penélope Cruz and Judi Dench’s characters were largely superfluous to the story. I’m maybe being slightly harsh on Gad, Odom Jnr and Ridley. They displayed some flashes here and there, but the majority were fairly forgettable in the main.
I thought Branagh was excellent as Poirot however. I really don’t understand the criticism of his accent, performance or the strange obsession with his magnificent facial hair. The three were fine. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with the novel interpretation as I previously mentioned, but he was emotionally invested, happy to get stuck in physically and fairly convincing as the logically brilliant, Belgian detective. Pfeiffer was probably my standout performer. There was palpable emotional turmoil within her complicated character, certainly towards the end where she really came to the fore.
There’s an expected twist at the end involving the manner of the murder and who’s ultimately responsible which I won’t reveal, because if you haven’t seen the film yet or any of the other adaptations, then it would completely spoil the mystery and story. Needless to say, it explained the contradictions Poirot ran into throughout and tied up the story nicely. It posed an interesting question thematically to the detective and viewer alike too about the nature of justice or whether two wrongs really do make a right.
Ultimately, I did enjoy the film. It was a fairly slow paced affair, annoyingly so at times admittedly, but a film like this shouldn’t be zipping along at a million miles per hour. It won’t be for everyone, people that read the novel or watched the 1974 film seem to dislike this version. It certainly does demand patience and it’s often dialogue heavy which will split opinion. I’m a Tarantino fan, the latter is one of his trademarks and I like a good mystery, so neither of these were an issue for me.
I recommend giving it a watch if the mystery genre is your thing or if you aren’t aware of the intricacies of the story. It’s a decent enough film, very much a dying breed that doesn’t seem to come along often these days.