“My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”
Synopsis: Famed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot elects to take a short break between cases on the Orient Express, upon meeting the passengers who will be accompanying him Hercule is presented with a case that is as challenging as it is disturbing. The classic whodunnit returns to the big screen with Branagh as Poirot as well as in the Directors Chair, with a large ensemble cast to accompany to him through this adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic.
Adapting a classic is never easy and one as widely known as Murder on the Orient Express would certainly seem like a large struggle to any Director. Kenneth Branagh however merely flexes his moustache and presents us with a vibrant and lavish silver screen mystery that may not add anything new to the story it’s adapting but nevertheless delivers great acting, a colour palette that pops and glitters, a brilliantly performed third act and a fun if somewhat slightly silly version of Poirot himself.
This films first biggest strength is easily its confidence, it isn’t touting itself as “A bold re-imagining of one of the greatest literary mysteries of the Twentieth Century” or “the definitive Agatha Christie story on the big screen” it is simply executing its premise in the most straightforward and direct fashion possible. It knows exactly what it wants to be and is exactly that: a damn good Whodunnit. Something that may be viewed as a problem within the film is that Murder on the Orient Express is a piece of media that is one of those quintessential classics that is so deeply ingrained in popular culture that seeing this film is pointless because everyone knows how it ends. It’s a classic for a reason. That, however, doesn’t stop this new version being a good ride all the way through. A well-known premise executed well will always be worth more than a script that becomes overstuffed because the person/people writing it are such fans of the original (Star Trek Insurrection being a perfect example).
On par with this films execution is the cast and the acting. The best way to show respect for the source material is to bring your A-Game in front of the camera and everyone in the cast performs wonderfully. Kenneth Branagh as Poirot is slightly sillier than other on-screen versions of the character with scenes about how Poirot likes his eggs and social interactions clearly played for a welcome amount of levity, but when Branagh needs to remind the audience of why Poirot is as renowned as he is, Branagh manages to present that aspect of the character with his always enjoyable gravitas and charisma. Roles given to actors such as Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Willem DaFoe and Judi Dench whilst smaller in the grand scheme of things are no less memorable and well performed with each actor clearly displaying a wide range of emotions and clearly demonstrating that they’re having a lot of fun at the same time. The person who emerges with the gold medal, however, is Michelle Pfeiffer, whilst a solid performance throughout the first two acts, Pfeiffer absolutely blows everyone else out of the water by the finale of the film, a performance which elevates the finale to something truly memorable after the enjoyable but comfortable first two acts. The entire cast performs wonderfully in their given role as these people who are as unique as much as they are interesting to watch, whilst at first glance it is very easy to mark them down as “The X” or “The Y With Something to Hide” that in and of itself is one of the charms of the film, the source material and indeed the genre at large.
On a technical level, the film exceeds expectations, at least on the train itself. I am not against CGI or digital effects in a big budget venture like this but that doesn’t stop the CGI from standing out by quite a bit, the train itself is very clearly a computer effect as is the weather in some wide shots and mountainous regions. But I can hardly expect a production to actually cause an avalanche on a train travelling through a mountain. On board the train itself is where the films vibrancy tends to pop the most, looking at this film it is impossible to deny that these people are travelling in luxury and that it is expensive to do so. The costumes all reflect these characters social status, career as much as their facial expressions reflect their state of mind, the lighting whilst not really used to any real dramatic extent still manages to bring to the eye all the small details that have been provided to the settings dressing and whilst two or three shots do tend to linger far longer than they should, they never disrupt the flow of the film. Though whenever Branagh holds on these and the camera very slowly creeps in on the main focus of the scene, it does sometimes leave the desire for there to be a cut somewhere in there. Whilst clearly meant to bring your attention to the person in question, one of the suspects, it feels like a small lack of energy is present where there shouldn’t be. Overall looking at and hearing what is going on in the film is akin to viewing an extremely well-designed theatre production, with everything done to cement you in that particular time period.
Returning to the genre, one aspect that may turn people off is the age-old attitude that “It’s been done” and it certainly has. Many, many times, however that never stops staples of a certain genre from being enjoyable or interesting. Every single genre of films has its tent poles. They are as ingrained in our little grey cells as much as how to ride a bike. What matters is how the people both behind and in front of the camera handle these tropes and inhabit them. This kind of setup and premise is what made Agatha Christie herself a progenitor of this genre in the same way as Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Rice Burroughs with John Carter of Mars (albeit from a vastly different genre but still a forerunner of it). If I was to pitch a film that revolved around a mystery where “everyone is a suspect” or “A quirky but ridiculously intelligent person must hunt down a serial killer who leaves a cryptic clue at each crime” then on cue in the other persons brain they would instantly be able to come up with a multitude of ways that my story could go, all of which that person would view as “cliché and predictable”. That person would be absolutely correct, but it wouldn’t change the fact that execution of an idea is just as important as the idea itself. Murder on the Orient Express is an antiquity of a time where this genre was as common as Comic Book adaptations are today or as Adaptation has always been to Hollywood. But that still doesn’t change the fact that the amount of talent, effort, and love for the original book is on display.
Whilst Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t break any new ground or set any new precedents, this version of the classic mystery delivers great acting, good visuals and atmosphere, a stellar third act and most importantly, excellent execution.
Summation: A classic executed well.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem DaFoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman.
Run Time: 114 Minutes