MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
By Nathan Evans
I’ve never read any of Agatha Christie’s work, nor have I seen any previous film adaptations. I wanted to get that out of the way before launching into the review of Kenneth Branagh’s latest effort, an adaptation of Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, because the book clearly has a long history both on stage and screen that I’m entirely ignorant of. I want to make it clear that the following review is solely based on Branagh’s work and not on any other film version, the source material, or any previous cultural perceptions of the story.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ begins in Jerusalem in 1934. It follows a man known as the ‘Protector of the Innocent’, Hercule Poirot (Branagh): a freelance detective perceived by many, including himself, as the greatest in the world. After resolving a crisis that could result in a religious war at the Wailing Wall, Poirot decides a holiday is in order and boards the titular locomotive, the Orient Express, at the last minute. Once aboard we’re introduced to a colorful cast of characters that include an aging socialite portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, a princess (Dame Judi Dench), and an abrasive gangster played by Johnny Depp (in his least eccentric role in years), among others. Just as Poirot begins to settle into an easy rhythm aided by the hum of the train and a book from his favorite author, Charles Dickens, Depp’s gangster is mysteriously murdered during the night; just as an avalanche derails the train. To save the reputation of his friend, the director of the train, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot decides to take charge of the investigation as they wait for rescue.
‘MOTOE’ plays out like a classic whodunnit, and Branagh tailors the film’s style to that tone. We’re introduced to our cast of players as if they were characters in the board game ‘Clue’ (which I have no doubt was inspired by Christie’s original novel). We get to know each of them just enough before the hammer falls, and the fun comes from trying to figure out which of them committed the murder before the intrepid investigator does. It’s the kind of setup that requires a satisfactory payoff in order to work. Unfortunately the film doesn’t provide one.
Again, I don’t know how closely the film follows the book, but the conclusion of ‘MOTOE’ is entirely preposterous. I won’t spoil the mystery here, but it cheats in the same way Tarantino’s last film, ‘The Hateful Eight’, cheats. Midway through the film a seemingly completely unrelated incident is revealed that ends up influencing the entire story. As audience members, there’s no way we would have known this information beforehand, nor would we have been able to base any of our theories around them, so when the killer is finally revealed you end up feeling tricked rather than satisfied. It’s this approach that undermines the heart of ‘MOTOE’.
While the film’s conclusion is ultimately unsatisfying, it’s the journey, not the destination, and a lot of the film works well up to that point. Utilizing beautiful, CGI assisted landscapes, excellent sets, and fantastic costume design from Branagh’s ‘Thor’ costume designer Alexandra Byrne, Branagh manages to recreate the period quite well. His lens brings a certain romanticism to the table a murder mystery like this requires.
Branagh himself is also excellent as our protagonist Poirot. Yes the character is basically a ripoff of Sherlock Holmes (I’m assuming Conan Doyle’s legendary character premiered before Poirot), but the character’s motivations are different enough to make him interesting. While Sherlock does what he does to keep his otherwise restless mind from boredom, Poirot is driven by an innate sense of justice and balance. Just as he cannot abide two dissimilar eggs for his breakfast, he cannot tolerate the aberration of crime. It’s obvious Branagh is having a grand old time behind the character’s ridiculous mustache and eccentric mannerisms. While he manages to remain entertaining (and surprisingly badass) throughout the film’s runtime, I did have trouble deciphering his cartoonish Belgium accent at times. While that’s mostly just a nitpick, clarity is preferable when you’re dealing with what appears to be a complex mystery.
Clarity is also an issue when it comes to the film’s editing. Despite his wealth of characters, Branagh’s intent on keeping the film’s runtime under two hours. As a result many of our suspects are lost in the shuffle. I found myself forgetting many of them existed at all until the plot required them to pop up again. When it comes to the handful of fight scenes that occur throughout the film, the editing is almost entirely disastrous. I understand ‘MOTOE’ isn’t trying to be an action film and doesn’t need any kind of elaborate set pieces, but we should still be able to follow what’s happening when the action does arise. The brief bursts of violence are near unintelligible.
The film also missteps when it comes to its sense of humor. As I touched on before, Poirot is an eccentric man, and while many of his eccentricities are chuckle inducing, a lot of them feel too hokey. There are a couple of scenes that feature Poirot chuckling like a school girl while reading or wearing a ridiculous mustache guard that I doubt was an actual thing during that time period. It seems as if Branagh is trying a little too hard to find humor in what is ultimately a dark story.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is more underwhelming than not, but it does have it’s moments. It looks great and features an excellent cast, and is enough to interest me in Christie’s work and the character of Hercule Poirot. The core mystery is a letdown, yes, but there are bits of fun to have along the way. Sadly, a mildly fun murder mystery seems unnecessary coming on the heels of the release of ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. A superior sequel to an original film Branagh himself directed. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
RATING: D+ -OR- 2.75 out of 5
For more reviews and updates on all things Nerd on Film follow me on Twitter (@nerdonfilm) and like the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nerdonfilm/