I’m a bit of a stan for Agatha Christie. Her books are all as straightforward, yet enticing thrillers that find the best and worst in human nature and pin it against each character like a target. While “Murder on the Orient Express” is a masterwork in its own right, my heart forever lies with “And Then There Were None,” a required reading book in 7th grade that opened my eyes to the beauty of dark literature in a way we hadn’t been able to experience up to that point in my Durham Public Schools experience. The mystery she creates is unlike any other, and it’s quite clear why she has lived on so gloriously through the years. Stories might get darker and more complex as time goes on, but a simple mystery never dies. Now, Shakespearian director and actor Kenneth Branagh takes on two heavy projects in one with the adaption of “Murder on the Orient Express”: 1. He takes on the duty of directing a classic novel to the big screen in his own style, while also preserving the heart of the beloved novel, and 2. He takes on the lead role of Hercule Poirot, one of the most iconic characters in modern literature, one that has his fair share of mega-fans. To take on two such volatile jobs is ballsy, but Branagh has proven time and again to transcend the boundaries of normal talent, but the real test comes in “Can he do Christie?”
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is a world-class detective, known for his insane skill at solving nearly unsolvable crimes all over the world. After solving a jewel heist in Jerusalem, Poirot boards the Orient Express to head back to Paris. Intent on relaxing for his trip home, he is rudely interrupted when a passenger, mobster Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is brutally murdered in the dead of night. Stranded after an avalanche blocks the train tracks, Poirot, at the behest of the train director, M. Bouc (Tom Bateman), hits in full force to solve who of the dozen passengers could’ve committed such a crime in such a claustrophobic environment. Suspects include governess, Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); assistant to Ratchett, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad); butler to Ratchett, Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi); American car salesman, Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); missionary, Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz); train conductor Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari); Czech count Rudolph Aldrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his wife, Elena (Lucy Boynton); doctor, Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.); Russian princess, Drogormiroff (Judi Dench); her maid, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); widow, Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), or professor, Gerhard Hardman (Willem Defoe).
If it wasn’t obvious, “Murder on the Orient Express” has one of the more stacked all-star casts in recent memory. As the film is introduced, you honestly are in shock every time a new A-list face hits the screen like it’s nothing. The reveals of each major star go on and on up until the second the train departs from the station. This cast proves itself to be a blessing and a curse for “Murder on the Orient Express,” proving itself in its favor in that every performance is indicative of each of the star’s relative acting styles, but detrimental in that some truly talented actors are relegated to nothing parts in the grand scheme of things. Actors like Defoe, Cruz, Boynton, Jacobi, Dench and Colman aren’t given very much to do in relation to the sheer amount of talent that each of these performers have put into previous performances. Their performances are still very good, they just don’t entail too much substance to them within a 114 minute runtime.
To get the rest of my grievances out of the way with “Murder on the Orient Express,” the film sounds dark on paper and in many moments, it is. That being said, the film often struggles with tonal issues that fluctuate between being lighthearted and humorous, while also trying to balance being a volatile, claustrophobic murder mystery. The way Branah incorporates much of Poirot’s humor comes across as over-the-top many times, when it should be played a bit less boldly. It’s an enjoyable performance to watch, but surrounded by wondrous, serious actors, it can stand out a bit when he tries to be funny during some darker situations.
That being said, Branagh is wonderful as Poirot in the majority of his scenes where he is playing it straight. Branagh is a true character actor that does quite well with material such as this. Much like Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, it’s fascinating to see Poirot’s mind work in real time as opposed to on a page and Branagh portrays this really well. Other performances are also very good, with Ridley leading the pack of supporting players. Ridley, of obvious “Star Wars” fame, has chosen a much more reserved role for her second major role as an actress, but Debenham fits the actress wonderfully, with Ridley bringing in just the right amount of dark mystery to the character we needed for the film. Bateman, known by me only for a small role in the wretched “Snatched,” also stands out as a charismatic addition to the cast of players, standing out quite well in the sea of A-list stars, Bateman holds his own. Though, much like any film she’s in, Pfeiffer steals the show as Hubbard. A flirty and dangerous woman, Pfeiffer plays in-between the intricacies of her role wonderfully. It’s not a massive role by any means (no one’s role, beyond Poirot’s is), but she does wonders with it in the same way that she made every scene of hers in “mother!” so devilishly wondrous.
Branagh is one of the best actors working today who can balance being a director of his own films so seamlessly. Branagh’s style as a filmmaker and his style as an actor are two separate entities that he keeps entirely separate, which makes “Murder on the Orient Express” feel entirely more put together than when other actors take on directorial duties in their own films. Shot beautifully, the film relies heavily on locations and sets, with production design being the clear strong suit of the creative staff of the film. Each specific room aboard the Orient Express feels like its own separate universe, despite being quite the claustrophobic environment. This is a world-class set for a world-class train that feels as diverse as it does constricting. As a director, Branagh weaves his way through these separate universes with his usual Shakespearian dexterity one might expect, but adds a distinctly glossy feel to it that reminds us that we’re watching a modern film.
If anything, I applaud “Murder on the Orient Express” for being as classic feeling as it is. It’s the closest film we’ve gotten to a Golden Age Hollywood blockbuster this year, one that would’ve starred along the likes of Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, etc. This is a prestige picture of the most classic kind. It’s unpretentious, in that it doesn’t try to be anything more than it is on paper. This isn’t some unique twist on Agatha Christie, nor does it try to reinvent the murder mystery genre, it’s a straightforward film with a straightforward motive that looks for class in darkness. It’s a wonder to see a film like this in 2017, even if some might deem it “unimaginative,” I deem it classically beautiful.
And I think that’s the strongest suit of “Murder on the Orient Express”: its classic nature. This is a true holiday season movie, one that can attract and entertain the likes of all ages, races, sexes and creeds. It’s not a film that’s going to reinvent any genre by any means, but it’s an wonderfully crafted, beautifully constructed, well-acted, albeit a bit busy and tonally confused film that almost acknowledges its imperfections as mere inevitabilities when adapting something so complex for a fussy studio. For what its worth, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “Murder on the Orient Express,” even if it doesn’t shake anything up, either. It’s a classic film with a classic motive: to engage. You might not feel shooketh come the end credits, but you sure as hell won’t feel jipped either. It’s a rare modern film we might see on Turner Classic Movies come a few years, because even though it’s brand new, it’s classic in its own right as is, right now.
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: 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, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin.
Runtime: 114 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.
Twentieth Century Fox presents, a Kinberg Genre/Mark Gordon Company/Scott Free production, a Kenneth Branagh film, “Murder on the Orient Express”