Murder On the Orient Express (2017)

“I have seen the fracture of the human soul. So many broken lives, so much pain and anger, giving way to the poison of deep grief, until one crime became many.”

Like the next person, I love a good thrilling murder mystery with countless twists, turns and surprises around every corner. Knowing that any one single character could be the murderer on a small, contained set is enticing enough as a narrative with countless motives is something we all hope to see with this type of whodunnit. That’s exactly what director/star Kenneth Branagh brings to Murder on the Orient Express adapted from the wildly popular and everlasting Agatha Christie novel of the same name. However, Branagh makes one miscalculation – facial hair; at any point during the film, I could have sworn the mustache that stretches from ear to ear would come alive, take over its hosts body and conduct the investigation. 

But, alas, that never happened, and I was slightly disappointed. I was however drawn to the furry friend, distracted by it and the subtle exclamation point of a soul patch that compliments the look. It’s hypnotizing – every word out of renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot’s (Branagh) (I won’t even begin to understand how to say his last name) mouth dances off the tongue like how a cobra is enticed by a song. The mustache could have moonlighted for a cult leader with Hercule as the ambassador of the community seeking new recruits.

Distractions aside, Murder on the Orient Express is serviceable as a whodunnit. Branagh assembles a talented ensemble cast of suspects in his reimaged take on the popular novel. Of course, this isn’t the first adaptation of Christie’s novel, the 1974 version also features a strong ensemble directed by Sidney Lumet with Albert Finney playing Hercule. With a script written by Michael Green, Murder on the Orient Express takes its time to unfold. At only 114 minutes, exposition is established to showcase the talent of Hercule as a detective. By the time they get on the train, I couldn’t help but think – finally, we’re getting into the meat and potatoes.

Every suspect has a motive for killing the suspicious looking bully Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Is it a matter of convenience that every character aboard the Orient has a connection to Ratchett? Sure, that’s explained as the story moves forward but convenience aside, Christie’s writing is smart enough to never put the focus on one suspect. The murderer could be anyone, that’s why the board game Clue is popular. Facing an array of questions by Poirot is Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Cyrus Bethman Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), Linda Arden (Michelle Pfeiffer), Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Coleman), Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and her husband Rudolph (Sergei Polunin). 

This is where Branagh can speed the pace up a bit – interrogations of each suspect come and go while characters stir the pot of drama to make themselves appear to be the killer while not being explicitly named the one who did the stabbing. Add in the stunning production design and a vintage aesthetic and the period comes to life. Once some strong evidence suggests one of the characters is the killer, the investigation resets and someone new is looked at as the main suspect.

While Murder on the Orient Express looks pretty with vibrant colors popping off the screen, the film never gains traction. I kept waiting for the bomb to drop and when it does a sense of melancholy strikes instead of the thrill intended. The climax in turn is anti-climactic, the exhilaration of the whodunnit disappears without a trace as the murderer is found out. Its monotone when there should be gasps and shocks to the system. 

Every actor/actress puts effort into playing their roles. No one stands out among the rest, after the initial interrogations, characters blend together almost indistinguishable from one another. Judi Dench is Russian, Willem Dafoe starts with a German accent and drops the facade halfway through, Olivia Coleman shows her talent with a different language while Branagh adds a layer of class with his French accent. The rest just exist. Everyone commits to their role for the most part, satirical or parody, they commit to the quirks and the theatrics of it all. 

Branagh known for his Shakespearean influence, brings that sense of tone, mood, and structure to Orient Express, it plays out like a tragedy, it even has a tone of dread and despair. That may be the biggest hinderance of the film. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it kills any sort of potential momentum as the plot thickens. 

Murder on the Orient Express boasts the scope of an old Hollywood epic with some world building and exposition, but its strength lies when the film feels small and contained to one setting. A dozen people in a room with enough motive to take a life and enough character building make the Agatha Christie novel worth the murderous ride but a lack of momentum and climactic moments cripple the story. Branagh gets the most out of his star-studded cast while the mustache is never looked at as a prime suspect when it should have all along. That’s the real crime – no amount of facial hair should be able to steal the scenes when there’s a whodunnit afoot. 

Written By: Michael Green

Directed By: Kenneth Branagh

Music By: Patrick Doyle

Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Running Time: 1 Hour 54 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%

My Score: 2.5 out of 5

Based On: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

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