Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017) *The Scenery Is Nice, But The Ride Is Bumpy*


Johnny Depp in Murder on the Orient Express
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.

Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley in Murder on the Orient Express
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.

Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express

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.

Murder on the Orient Express

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.”.

Murder on the Orient Express CastThe 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.

Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express

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.

Daisy Ridley in Murder on the Orient Express

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.


Murder On the Orient Express Poster 2

14 thoughts on “Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017) *The Scenery Is Nice, But The Ride Is Bumpy*”

  1. Tomorrow night. To be fair, Christie had a very nasty habit of not playing fair with her readers. This one, her play The Mousetrap, the one where the narrator was a novelist (I forget the title) and the last Poirot novel, Curtain, contained her cleverest solutions IMO, partly because you could look back and wonder how you possibly missed it. But then you look at 10 Little Indians, and there is no one who could possibly sort out the minutiae of that solution before it is revealed, though it is possible to guess the killer. Death on the Nile would have been brilliant, but the reveal was too laden down with unguessable details. Man, this is bringing it all back. I was mostly in it for the Poirot character, back when I was a kid and barreled through all the books. So I won’t mind if I mostly get Branagh as a really good Poirot, and scenery. I hate the original film and think that Finney was a disgraceful Poirot. I don’t expect Branagh to live up to Suchet, but if you say he’s decent that puts my mind at ease. I hope I like this better than you, I was really looking forward to it.

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      1. Yeah, if the target audience on opening day doesn’t like it there is not much hope. I commend everyone involved for trying to make an old school film, but maybe they should have gone with a slightly more radical approach. Not Guy Ritchie or Baz Luhrmann radical, but something darker, more fast paced, maybe a little more violent, more in tune with modern sensibilities. Branagh’s time has come and gone, and even the time he had was a disappointment. Henry V was sooooo good. Scary good. Dead Again was great. Much Ado About Nothing was excellent. And then, nothing. I thought he was going to be like his idol, Welles. But his Hamlet was self-indulgent and not that great, and he just flamed out. There wasn’t even a flame, he just ended. I still don’t know what happened. Actually, he was a lot like Welles, but in the wrong way.

        I hope some of these films deliver this season. Coco will. Shape of Water will, I have no doubt. Darkest Hour and Greatest Showman, who can say? And Justice League is the wild card of the century. As we all know. I was really looking forward to The Current War. Idiot Harvey. Star Wars will be incredible, but one film doesn’t save a year as bleak as this one. Hollywood is imploding.

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      2. Well you look at genre films and if Justice League is good, this is arguably the best year for quantity of quality ever. Dunkirk, Blade Runner, Get Out, Wind River, all spectacular but I have seen 57 movies so far this year and the dropoff after the top 15 is massive. Lotta possibles upcoming but The Last Jedi to me is the only one I have no doubts over. I will see everything, but I am afraid I may be writing a lot more reviews in this score range. If The Post can’t take Best Picture in this year I dunno wtf they might give it to…..of course I could say that any year.

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  2. The ones that delivered this year really delivered. Dunkirk is one of the best war films ever made. Get Out is a gem to end all gems. WW was great. Thor delivered, big time. So much better than WW, by the way. And given the change of tone in WW, it’s not comparing apples and oranges like it used to be with MCU vs DCEU. I think the MCU will keep trouncing the DCEU. By a mile. Thor 3 was much more fun than every DCEU film to date, put together.

    I think The Post will be one of Steve’s lesser films. Really lesser. There are two possibilities. The first one is… and I’m not making a political comment, here… a bunch of famous people get together to make “serious a movie with a statement,” and it is stagey and talky and boring and too on the nose, and also alienates enough americans to bomb. The other possibility is that Steve is wishy-washy, and the film has a vague implied connection with topical events, and is stagey and talky and you can’t remotely tell it’s a Spielberg movie. My money is on the latter possibility, BTW. Do not get your hopes up.

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  3. I was just looking at a picture of Branagh as Poirot, and I am baffled by the mustache. I feel like Poirot is going to reach out with it and grab me, like Medusa from Inhumans can do with her hair. Poirot always took pride in his mustache, but I think Branagh got carried away. In real life, a mustache like that would be a sign of mental instability rather than vanity and fastidiousness. It’s like Branagh agreed to make this movie, but only if his mustache could be ten times larger than a normal mustache. I understand that it is a vital clue because in the book SPOILER the mustache did it, but it’s already taking me out of the movie, and I have not seen the movie yet. It would be funny if they mimicked the marketing strategy of Mordecai, and released individual posters of each of the characters wearing an enormous Poirot-Moustache.

    Speaking of Depp REAL SPOILER I was relieved beyond measure when I learned he was the victim, and would not be in the whole movie. I think that means I have gone from being a fan of his to the opposite. Unless he drops the preening, overacting thing and the pancake makeup, for good. Not happening, I suspect. It is too late for this guy.

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  4. Dave I just saw it I get all of your objections but I still loved it from start to finish. If the film has weaknesses they are Christie’s, and if it has limitations they are the genre’s. Perhaps it could have been finessed a bit more but old fashioned whodunnits have never worked for me cinematically (it’s ok on tv if done well) and this movie did.

    Branagh is not playing Poirot here, Poirot is a total intellectual who cannot tie his own shoelaces. This was a true reimagining and one that worked. I loved him, and accepted the hugeness of his moustache.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe it was partly the blessing of low expectations, but I did. Also after really giving the trailer for the Post a chance I can say that my earlier analysis was glib and unfair. I can admit it. Spielberg might actually pull through. At the very least it might be a Bridge of Spies level excellent movie.

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