It’s difficult to know how to review Murder on the Orient Express. Should it be judged against the 1970s film? Should it be held against the Agatha Christie novel it adapts? In the end, I decided to judge it on its on merits as a standalone film. To that standard, the picture is well-acted with a great ensemble. Kenneth Branagh does well as the lead, but in the direction and especially the screenplay the film is choppy and almost unbearably expository in its climax. It looks absolutely fantastic, but I doubt Murder is going to inspire a Christie renaissance or have a tremendous impact on the box office. It’s not awful, but it’s not anywhere near what it should be, and that won’t be enough to attract an audience not already in love with the source material.
As the trailers for Murder have come out in the past months, we’ve talked on the site about how Agatha Christie has, at least in the United States, fallen out mainstream reading lists. I went to a showing on opening night, and while my theater was mostly full, I was probably the only person there who didn’t receive an AARP discount on their ticket. I read Agatha Christie because they were always lying around my grandparents’ houses, but I doubt that most people my age and under even know who Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple are.
Poirot is Christie’s Holmes: the “greatest detective in the world”. The film opens specifically to hammer that fact home to audiences that might not know the much mustachioed Belgian sleuth. Indeed, the first act is almost a Poirot character study focusing almost exclusively on him, his tics and eccentricities, his acumen as a detective, and against him are the other passengers on the Orient Express introduced. I’m not sure whether it’s because Branagh is an egomaniac (he really IS Gilderoy Lockhart), but the introduction of the large ensemble on the train is a series of choppy vignettes where Poirot always dominates. While this can be funny and charming at times, it builds up a expositionary plot debt that the second and third acts scramble to cover.
For those unfamiliar with the story (SHAME), a passenger is murdered, the train is snowbound, and the famous detective is enlisted to find the culprit. A good detective story should give the audience a shot at figuring out whodunnit? The screenplay for the film, in highlighting Poirot so exclusively in the beginning actually ends up using Christie’s own biggest weakness as a writer: her penchant for springing completely unknowable, gigantic plot twists onto the reader (or in this case the viewer). The old, “Ah, but you all did not know that….etc, etc, etc.”.
The passengers are all hiding a connection to something. A more cunning screenplay and less self-centered direction would have laced this throughout the build-up to the murder. As it is, even through Poirot’s interrogations, the film still feels like a series of scenes rather than a connected narrative until he whips out his “Ah, but you did not know”. By that point, we’re so far into the film, that Branagh’s Poirot is forced to long explanation after long explanation. Telling, rather than showing, for the most part, in a visual medium, gets very tedious very quickly. The climactic reveal is such a long expository speech that you have to stretch your brain to connect it to the characters, because no indelible link was made earlier in the film.
In short, Murder on the Orient Express is the Kenneth Branagh-centric version of Christie’s story. I think if he hadn’t been directing himself, the film would have been better off, because he is a charming Poirot. Michelle Pfieffer, Johhnny Depp, Willem DaFoe, and Daisy Ridley (in her first non-Star Wars film) are all very good as is the whole ensemble. The problem is, they have very little to work with and are mostly reduced to reacting to whatever Poirot is saying or doing. Mostly saying.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous, has a nice score, beautiful art direction, but all of that is window dressing on a simply average mystery. There are some attempts to make it a little more modern, but if anything they emphasize that the story is of a period. The book deserved better. The 1970s film is a better adaptation; this one is prettier. Honestly….read the book.