Murder on the Orient Express barely makes it into the station


Despite beautiful set design and a theatrical style, Murder on the Orient Express has trouble lifting itself off the page.

16 years have passed since the last adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express. (The most well-known iteration, however, remains the one from 1974.) Director Kenneth Branagh’s new take on Christie’s acclaimed detective Hercule Poirot is sumptuous to look at, but it’s often too stagy and sluggish to be anything memorable.

Legendary detective Poirot (Branagh) finds himself on the Orient Express train when someone is murdered. A wealth of suspects soon pop up, leaving Poirot with his work cut out for him.

Christie’s novels are revered for their rapidity. The crime is committed and the book’s pages focus on individual characters and Poirot’s deduction of how things played out. And while that’s what basically what happens during the film’s near two-hour runtime, it’s hard not to believe something isn’t lost in the translation. The film opens with a stolen relic at the Wailing Wall, our first glimpse at Poirot’s masterful powers of deduction and his bizarre quirks (he’s on the quest for the perfect egg). Just as quickly as that’s solved, he ends up in a locale wherein he ends up on the Orient Express, and another murder conveniently falls into his lap.

The parlor room mystery has trouble sustaining itself once the murder takes place, as the rest of the film follows a staid routine of Poirot individually interviewing someone, learning one key fact and then starting the process over with someone else. The film enjoys the “countdown” nature of things, from Poirot cloistering himself with each character individually to the numerous tracking shots where the camera captures each suspect.

This florid theatricality leaves the cast posing more than acting. Each of the actors, with the exception of Branagh whose dueling mustaches serve more to make his character memorable than anything else, has a moment to shine and little else. The MVP, as she’s been all year, is Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard. As with most of the cast she has one personality trait — professional man-hunter — but that allows Pfeiffer to continuously slay with her eyes. Once her true motivations are revealed, she has a painful moment of anguish that’s more emotional than anything leading up to it.

It’s actually sad that the characters are so two-dimensional, because the cast assembled is insanely talented. Outside of Branagh and Pfeiffer you have Star Wars heroine Daisy Ridley as governess Mary Debenham. Beautifully made up and dressed, Ridley is sweet; there are brief allusion to a romance between her and Leslie Odom Jr’s Dr. Arbuthnot, but that’s the extent of it. The script tries to make Mary the second lead to Branagh, but that just results in a few additional talking scenes. The rest of the cast, including the aforementioned Odom, Penelope Cruz, and Josh Gad, to name a few, are all present and accounted for, but without their famous faces you’d be hard-pressed to remember the characters they play. This could explain why at least three of the characters in this film — not played by A-list celebs — sail completely under the radar.

The scenery and costumes are what sell Murder on the Orient Express more than anything. Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are nothing short of awards-worthy — and it wouldn’t be a surprise for this to secure a Best Costuming nomination. The love of long gowns and furs is complemented by Jim Clay’s equally expensive production design. The Orient Express furnishings are nothing short of spectacular and demand you book passage. The backgrounds do have a tendency to look like greenscreen, especially as they whiz by train windows, but it’s beautiful greenscreen.

Branagh, as both actor and director, is having fun as Poirot. It’s evident he’s a fan of the source material, and that comes through in his commitment to the character who is smart and quirky. There are allusions made to a lost love, though that seems to do little more than encourage a sequel than anything else. It’s as a director that Branagh seems more comfortable, filming everything with a loving reverence for the scenery, the acting, and the desire to return to a style of filmmaking that’s lavish and slow. This would be appreciated if there was anything in the way of suspense or mystery. By the third act, when the grand reveals are painfully doled out, you’re left thinking that Poirot is just lucky. There’s little actual detecting that allows the audience to play along and solve the mystery; they’re simply told what the facts are.

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All this is to say that Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is nothing more than serviceable. If you’re a fan of Christie’s work your mileage will vary depending on how you feel about specific changes made. The casual filmgoer will enjoy the star-studded cast, but the film has serious hills and valleys with a middle and end that just feel like posturing.