Quick Take: Murder on the Orient Express is a spectacularly looking and excellently cast update to this classic mystery.
The film builds its story on solid (and hallowed) ground, gets off to a great start and offers a witty introduction of the fastidious detective; but ultimately falls short in offering this nuanced and emotionally layered mystery the depth that’s a signature of an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery.
Mostly because the one element that MUST BE dead on perfect isn’t: Kenneth Branagh, for all his skills and abilities, is no Hercule Poirot.
The character deviations and plot changes necessary to make Branagh a believable Poirot fatally cost this film:
- They ate up needed time that should’ve been devoted to story and character development,
- They completely threw – what needs to be perfect pacing – off the subliminal “ticking clock” that maintains the ever-building sense of urgency essential to all good closed-room mysteries, and
- They led to stripping a fundamental character trait of Hercule Poirot from Branagh’s version that’s just unforgivable.
Branagh is an ill-fitting Poirot on so many levels it’s painful to imagine what in the fresh hell made him think he could embody a man that’s a mismatch in physical attributes, appearance, temperament, quirks, and subtlety without ultimately undermining everything that makes Murder on the Orient Express so a compelling.
This version is a good story but it’s too concern with leading up to the ending it fails to properly build up to its the climactic moments.
The Details: I love closed room mysteries. I love Agatha Christie. I love insanely intelligent detectives who never seem to behave how the people around them think they should. From which you can safely assume, I absolutely adore Hercule Poirot.
Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most read novels. To this day, it’s an extremely popular title among mystery lovers. It’s not my personal favorite but it’s pretty high on the list. This novel’s been adapted four times (to date); the penultimate version being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 masterpiece, which boasted an all-star cast and peeled the layers back on this mystery with wit and skill.
Audiences have been graced with brilliant portrayals of Christie’s fussy, intractable, genius detective by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and the utterly unforgettable, hands-down sublimeness that is David Suchet’s celebrated run as of Poirot on British television and PBS’s Masterpiece Mysteries series in the US. I freely admit I am biased in favor of Suchet’s Poirot until the stars burn out. I’ll fight you to keep his seat at the head of the table secure for all time.
But I’m never opposed to revitalizing the role so new people can discover the awesome that is Christie’s greatest detective to ever live (in his personal opinion that is).
For those who may not know anything about Murder on the Orient Express, a brief synopsis:
A group of seeming strangers all board a luxury train to travel from Istanbul to Calais. After cleverly solving a volatile case in Jerusalem, – in a dynamic and engaging opening sequence – Monsieur Poirot hopes of a vacation are dashed as he’s once again called back to London regarding another open case. He joins the trip at the last minute, securing the last first-class cabin on the Orient Express.
Not long into the trip, one of the passengers is murdered in their locked single occupant room.
It becomes a race against the clock to discover the murderer before the train is again moving towards its destination. At the behest and urging of his ordinarily jubilant and lascivious friend Wolfgang Bouc (Tom Bateman), – whose depiction of Bouc is directly responsible for many of the films lighter moments and best one-liners – Poirot steps in to take the matter in hand and solve the case.
There’s not one cast member failed to embody the characters from Christie’s novel with skill, precision, and flair. Not one. Each one was intriguing and exuded just a tinge of being guilty of something.
But there was plenty of time for us to get more from them. Each could’ve been given opportunities to exhibit greater range and build the mystery around their characters. It was a missed opportunity that will cause more than a few audience members to miss the clues that expose their guilt or innocence before all is revealed in the end.
Instead, more than a few choices Branagh’s directorial choices glossed over quirks and pushed moments that made more than one-character lean a little too close to brittle and brash. It undercut some of the conviction in the plot progression and made more than a few of his deductions appear baseless. The overall picture that’s should reveal both the motive and means behind the death on the Orient Express is shaky at best. There needed to be more character-driven moments and less exposition.
The visuals that tell the tale that does make the film are so brilliant and employ some iconic camera angles that call to mind old black and white crime thrillers. Seeing what can be done when proper focus is given to building the plot up made it even more jarring when the story reverts to “telling” you what people are thinking or what about them makes them suspect.
Murder on the Orient a costume drama worth of every dollar spent to bring it to the screen. The storyline is a well-known tale so the film’s vitality rests with its players.
And everyone came ready to play, making for an interesting – if an inexplicably slow feel lingers throughout the second act – mystery plenty of people will enjoy.
I say all of this so you can have a context to understand how seriously disappointed I am in the 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.
Kenneth Branagh is both an amazing director and superb actor. His acting and directing credits are a master class in-and-of-themselves. His direction of the first Thor movie is my favorite part of that film I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him in the driver’s seat of another superhero film. So, I never miss an opportunity to watch him act or see a film where he’s in the director’s chair. But there are times when Branagh needs to pick a chair; either direct or act. Murder on the Orient Express was most definitely one of those times.
Seven Ways Murder on the Orient Express does everything right and wrong because Branagh was in front of the camera instead of fully focused on being behind it:
- The script direction and story beats showcase the best of a cast only capable of giving their best but the performances could’ve made more cohesive sense and been a better anchor for revealing clues.
- The cinematography and production design create a “look and feel” so dazzling that you can be forgiven for missing more than one unnecessary character trait changes.
- The film plays out in a setting so gorgeous that it distracts from more than a few of its flaws and slow beats when this ensemble is spread about the train.
- Branagh’s direction expertly navigates its plot and contains just the right touch of wit yet occasionally failed to keep the character context for these moments of subtle humor.
- There’s only an adequate balance of “show not tell,” and those tactics frequently highlight and focus on the wrong story elements; creating a need for bloated dialogue, data dumping and leading to some severely incomplete visual storytelling.
- The entire film is one wardrobe change after another that has me so deep in clothing and accessory envy (across gender lines) I’m ready to rummage through some folks’ suitcases but the significance of the film’s best red herrings gets lost in the shuffle.
- The climactic moments of the film are true to the words of the book but are lacking in the spirit, so what should be a true ethical dilemma never ends up feeling like one.
I am convinced that had Branagh not been expending energy on his own performances, these off-notes and missed opportunities wouldn’t have happened. His director’s eye would’ve been fully focused outward and the entire casts already impressive performances would’ve been elevated even further and the mystery would’ve consistently kept that element of suspense and story tension.
He also would’ve realized wasting time on unnecessary attempts to “humanize” Poirot with scenes (this is not a spoiler buddy) of him talking to the faded image of a woman seeming to stumble and waiver in his convictions is anathema to building a “good” Poirot.
He also wouldn’t have added physical exertion to the movie. Hercule Poirot does. not. sweat. Therefore, showing him rushing here and there and engaging in violent physical altercations would not happen. It’s completely against type and felt wrong while it was happening on screen. Poirot isn’t the greatest detective of his age because he can physically beat you, he’s the greatest because he’ll out think you and see every single little thing you think you’re hiding beneath the surface.
The film’s opening does such a fantastic job of establishing this character’s personality and dominant traits that these “emotional/introspective” moments and physicality are as inauthentic as hell. Frankly, it pissed me off because it felt like nothing more than an attempt to insert some overtly “masculinity” into an otherwise effeminate (written deliberately so btw) male character.
They also distract at a key moment in the movie from clues hovering just out of frame that would assist the audience in following the murder mystery going on outside his cabin door.
So while Branagh handily demonstrates both the mental acuity and intuitiveness of the detective and adds witty and humorous elements to his portrayal it isn’t Poirot. He uses great interactions between this character and the rest of the ensemble to expose his quirks (there must be symmetry in all things…even egg size), and properly frame his sense of elegance against his pathological need for neatness and belief in right and wrong. But, Branagh seriously reaches for an emotive element that’s ill-fitting by building in a conflict that just doesn’t exist for Poirot (and here’s where I have to be vague so as not to spoil) by overplaying the climatic end and having him act in ways he’d never, ever behave.
The movie ends with mention of a death on in Egypt. Which hints at the possibility of the novel Death on the Nile coming to the big screen.
This is my all-time favorite Agatha Christie Poirot story, hands down. I’d love to see the entire team behind this movie coupled with another round of great ensemble casting tackle THAT mystery with one caveat:
I’m not even a little open to the idea of Branagh being playing Hercule Poirot in that movie.
I will so fight you.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
Runtime: 114 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by: Michael Green
Based on the Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express
Cast: Tom Bateman, Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin.