Since I first saw the trailer I was intrigued by what could come from the latest interpretation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”. A packed cast, an interesting murder mystery, and a promising director/star all made the film an attractive early fall release worth checking out. Now I won’t say that “Murder on the Orient Express” is a train wreck of a film (get it…bad pun), but it has its flaws. More flaws than are really acceptable unfortunately. So how good or bad in the movie? Well here’s my review for your consideration.
As mentioned, “Murder on the Orient Express” is based on the well-known Agatha Christie novel of the same name and is directed by Kenneth Branagh who also stars that the film’s main character Hercule Poirot. Poirot, a ace detective who is extremely attentive to detail and set off by any imbalance he sees in the world around him, nabs a ticket to ride the Orient Express after he is called in to discuss a case. While on board he meets a man named Samuel Ratchett, played by Johnny Depp, who is mysteriously murdered after asking Poirot’s help as a bodyguard. Poirot begins an investigation into the murder after an avalanche derails the train temporarily with a slew of suspects on board played by the likes of Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Sergei Polunin. As Poirot gets closer to the answer of “whodunnit” he discovers that the case may be more complicated than initially assumed.
I have to say “Murder on the Orient Express” is probably the most middle of the road movie I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s not terrible, but it’s not really that good either. There’s a lot to appreciate, but also a lot to dislike about the whole experience. Despite having a massive cast of notable names, some new and some old, the film really does little with its star power with Director Kenneth Branagh taking center stage as Poirot and putting most of the focus on his character and little real quality development into the remaining cast. At the same time however Branagh is a joy to watch in his role, which I’ll expand on in a moment, and it’s truly fun to try and decipher the overall mystery, especially if you’ve never read the book.
Focusing on Branagh’s performance specifically, as I said it’s actually quite fun. He is clearly very into it and totally hams up his role as a man obsessed with balance in the world and seeks to keep that balance, mostly between good and evil, intact. Branagh is actually very impressive and entertaining, bringing personality and great energy to the character of Hercule Poirot that makes him a true joy to watch on screen. It takes focus and dedication to tackle such an iconic character and Branagh nails it. Sadly however the same can’t be said for his direction as the remainder of the cast is pretty much left to fend for themselves while Branagh tries to put his own man front and center.
That’s part of the film’s problems is that there are so many big names attached and none of them get the screen time they deserve. We do get to at least see each of these characters be interviewed by Poirot and eventually the connection between all of them is made clear, but really only a few of them get the chance to shine. Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Michelle Pfeiffer all share probably the most screen time with Branagh’s Poirot individually but they all feel dry and boring compared to the rather eccentric Poirot. Even the most memorable performances in this film, including the small part Johnny Depp plays, are overshadowed by Branagh who almost seems to be in a totally different movie at times compared to the much softer and more toned down performances of the other actors.
For this I blame Branagh as a director. While he shines as an actor here his direction is clearly unfocused and all over the place. Maybe I worded that wrong. He is focused, just on one particular part of the film rather than completing a whole package. Branagh makes some strange visual choices and storytelling decisions with this film. For example, the one most cringe worthy moment for me was a lineup of all the suspects at the end of the film all positioned with an obvious shot to resemble “The Last Supper” painting that felt unneeded and unwarranted. Branagh makes a lot of these mistakes in the movie, from his own character’s obsession with a photograph of a past lover, which adds nothing to the plot or the character really, to his handling of his fellow actors’ places within the larger story. The mystery and Poirot himself are fun to experience, but the rest of the project doesn’t reach the same level of energy and enjoyment making for a disjointed flick, even if it can be pretty fun at times.
All that said you can probably tell why I was a little frustrated by “Murder on the Orient Express”. It has its moment and when the film hits its marks it’s actually quite enjoyable, but it’s really a tale of two different styles that don’t mesh at all. It’s clear Kenneth Branagh was a better actor than director for this film. His embrace of Poirot is amazing and is actually one of the most fun single characters I’ve seen on screen this year, but the movie as a whole leaves much to be desired which seems to indicate that Branagh just made this film to have fun with a character he clearly enjoys playing. All the heart and sole is in that one role. There’s really nothing else to elevate the movie anywhere in its two-hour run time. Without Branagh’s performance this would be a dull, lifeless retread of a familiar story, but whose to say he wouldn’t have made a better film if he didn’t put himself in the spotlight? I think the big problem here is that Branagh himself may have failed to focus as an artists and filmmaker. He sacrificed overall quality of his project for the sake of bringing his character to life but what’s the point in giving such a good performance if you don’t demand the same energy and quality entertainment from the movie you yourself are making or the other actors it’s your responsibility to lead?
“Murder on the Orient Express” can be a fun and exciting journey into a familiar murder mystery if you want it to be. For me though it was as average a film as you’re going to see this year. It has moments that shine and a lead actor that truly owns his role and the other actors that do get decent screen time make the best of the material handed to them. However there’s not enough focus on the suspects in this case and the film as a whole feels messy. It’s a poorly directed film by a very good actor that offers just enough to be entertaining but not enough to really be that memorable. I think the real mystery here is how much better would this movie have been if Branagh has chose one role over the other…unfortunately we’ll never know.