Based on the Agatha Christie mystery novel of the same name, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express disappoints by relegating the key elements of the mystery genre to mere mundane repetition. All of the hard-boiled fun of Christie’s source material ends up feeling like a bland paint-by-numbers. The movie contains a star-studded cast, with practically every character involved in the whodunit represented through an admirable performance. But for a film that is ostensibly subtle, intriguing, and mysterious, too little respect is paid to the details. The result is a lukewarm mystery where each blasé piece of detection by the legendary Hercule Poirot only makes the ultimate reveal more tired and disappointing.
Murder on the Orient Express is a classic tale of a group of strangers who meet on a train and discover that one of them has killed another during the night. Among the travelers is Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective played by Kenneth Branagh (who also directed the film). The character of Hercules Poirot, and Branagh’s performance, is easily the best thing about the film. Branagh adopts a kind of obsessive-compulsive flavor for Poirot, as though his detective prowess is something he simply can’t resist expressing. Branagh also plays Poirot with a jovial outlook, where even when things aren’t going well he keeps high spirits. He has a casual approach to life that is very different from other “greatest detectives” like Sherlock Holmes or Batman.
The other characters mostly blend together into an ensemble, although there are a few standouts. That starts with Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham. Ridley does a fine job of expressing confidence while under interrogation by Poirot, comfortable in her secrets and her ability to keep them from the detective. Johnny Depp’s stint as the victim of the crime is relatively short-lived, but is closer to a genuine performance than we normally get from Depp; it isn’t the zany, off-the-wall performance we’re used to from Depp. His right-hand man and accountant is played by Josh Gad, who is able to inject the early portion of the film with strong emotion, especially in a couple of important early revelations. Other performances from Dame Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Leslie Odom Jr. are all fine, but mostly they exist as the backdrop of the mystery. Overall, the cast is relatively strong, and it has to be in a film like this where there aren’t going to be many changes in scenery, action scenes, or other distractions.
Unfortunately, the way Branagh unravels the plot leaves a great deal to be desired.
I go back and forth on how much of the plot of Murder on the Orient Express to reveal but since it’s based off of an old novel and is a remake of a 1974 film, it seems fair to spoil anything from the story. In addition, I think it’s constructive to investigate specific details that are important for the overall mystery and the only way to do that is to spoil certain events in the film.
The basic plot is simple enough. There are 13 people in a train car, all strangers, with nothing in common except their destination. In the evening, one of them kills another. Thus, it comes to the great detective Hercule Poirot to discover who did it before the train reaches its destination. The intriguing part of Midnight on the Orient Express is that it is equally likely for any one of the people on the train to be the murderer, and only a detective of Poirot’s abilities could possibly make sense of the myriad clues, motives, and opportunities that led to the killing. As he gets deeper into the mystery, things don’t add up to much: there’s an orgy of evidence at the scene of the crime, pointing to five or six different people, alibis depend on the testimonies of other suspects, and the more he discovers the stranger the case becomes.
As Poirot interrogates each suspect, the storytelling becomes an obvious weakness. Each of these interviews is shockingly rote and similar: Poirot sits somebody down, talks about their past, and makes a few deductions about their character. He gets into their possible alibis, motives, and other clues, without discernible variation. Plus, each and every time the same strange case from the past pops up: the Anderson baby napping case. After the third or fourth person was conveniently connected to this case, it became clear to me that all of the people on this train could not possibly be strangers as we were promised.
The sameness of the revelations leads to the true weakness of Murder on the Orient Express: the genius insights of Poirot are not revealed to us in any kind of interesting way, which results in tedium instead of excitement. Basically, Poirot makes a leap of logic from a clue, states it out loud, and then the movie continues on. We aren’t made to understand where the insight comes from or why. There’s no cinematic quality to Poirot’s moments of Eureka, and one consequence of this “style” is that each one of his discoveries is treated with the exact same importance – even the ultimate reveal of who the murderer is. That’s not okay. It’s important to make sure that your audience is iinvested and involved in the mystery as it unravels; you have to give them a sense of the scope or the grandiosity of the discovery. Murder on the Orient Express has none of this.
Mostly what happens is Kenneth Branagh excitedly listing off a collection of insights, the excitement level always flat, regardless of the conclusion or the weight of the solution. By the time we’re deep into the third act we’ve already had two or three dozen “magnificent” deductions and we just don’t quite care what the last one is. We’re tired from each and every insight being treated with the same preponderance of importance and we kind of just want it all to be over with. It doesn’t help that there are few false reveals about who the actual murderer is. After the second or third one of these we’re just ready for the film to be over.
This is the overwhelming weakness of Murder on the Orient Express: it makes us bored about the murder mystery. It forces us into not caring about the very thing that it’s supposed to be about. That’s poor storytelling in any genre but in the mystery, where the attention of the audience is crucial, this film squanders our attention far too quickly.
There are some redeeming qualities to the film. I think it is shot very well, especially with regards to the use of a black and white for the things that have happened in the past. A couple of quirky camera angles are used in the film to drive home the point of the strangeness of the mystery, most notably upon discovery of the victim’s body. This very first discovery of the murder adopts an incredibly skewed camera angle: incredibly high, shooting down on the tops of the characters’ heads. This gives us a very abnormal feeling, with the film communicating this on a subconscious level, and that unraveling all of this strangeness is going to be quite a task. That’s a great shot, bordering on brilliance, actually. But there’s too little of this; most of everything else is a helicopter shot of the train or an interior shot of the train or a shot of the mountains. There’s just not enough that is innovative or interesting in the way Murder on the Orient Express is shot, outside of these few scenes.
However, one area where the film does succeed is its specific theme. Normally a murder mystery is not heavy on theme. Usually we’re talking about revenge (or its ultimate ineffectiveness) or sometimes jealousy or whatever motive that could drive a person to murder. Murder on the Orient Express is a little deeper, showing that a single act of violence can have a large effect on the lives of many people. Like the ripples after a pebble skips on a pond, the film shows us how a single evil act can compound upon itself and become many evil acts. That’s a reasonably deep theme for what amounts to a simple bottle episode murder mystery. And, for the most part, the film pulls this theme off pretty well, using key moments to show how each passenger’s life was altered by this single case. Unfortunately, cinematic expression of these ideas is a tad lacking; mostly characters just explain their way of thinking, which once again goes back to the failure of the film to express its cinematic ideas in any kind of innovative or interesting way. Still, the theme itself is a powerful and interesting one and the fact that the film champions something at all is noteworthy.
In the end, Murder on the Orient Express just doesn’t do enough of interest to keep the attention of the audience. There are strong isolated moments but for the most part the film squanders them by treating most of its plot points and revelations with very little respect. By the end of the film we’re just we’re just happy that it’s over and that we don’t have to parse the bland reveals any longer. For a murder mystery, that’s a damning flaw. Thus, despite doing a few things well, it is difficult to recommend Murder on the Orient Express as anything but a casual distraction. The quality simply is not here; from start to end there are better films, better stories, better executions of similar ideas.