I adore a good Agatha Christie novel and Murder on the Orient Express is arguably the best murder mystery that Christie has written. It has a lavish 1930s setting; a luxury train filled with exciting and varied characters including a doctor, a governess and a Russian princess. Topped with a murder scene where there are too many clues, inconsistent details and where everyone has an alibi. In short, Murder on the Orient Express has excellent source material. Pair this with an all-star cast including Dame Judi Dench, Michelle Pfieffer, Penelope Cruz and Kenneth Branagh, you would expect excellence. However the film doesn’t manage to do the story justice.
Branagh, both the director and starring as Hercule Poirot, chooses to spend the film reimagining the moustachioed Belgian detective, with the murder being a vehicle for character development. The film begins at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where Poirot’s character is established; he prefers balance in the world, opting for example, when accidentally stepping one foot in dung, to step the other foot too. His detective skills are put to the test and emphasis is placed on how Poirot sees the world in black and white but this isn’t really needed; the audience knows that he is a brilliant detective.
It is always difficult to get a real sense of all the characters in an ensemble cast in a limited time. Murder on the Orient Express only really introduces the audience to Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) before boarding the train, and our murder victim Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and his secretary Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) once we are on it. Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a widow travelling to find a new husband, is introduced briefly but though we catch glimpses of the different characters in Istanbul before they board, at no point does the film introduce the rest of the cast properly. I struggled to remember the suspects until the climax of the film where Poirot seats the passengers at a long, biblical table and confronts them.
The joy of a murder mystery comes from collecting clues, determining who is lying and which characters seem the most suspicious. This adaptation spends hardly any time establishing the motives or alibis of the characters. The acting prowess of academy award winners Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, for example, are limited to a couple of scenes with a handful of lines each. It’s a hook that lures you in to watch the film, but is ultimately a waste of talent. This film also misses aspects of the mystery that make it so intriguing – the fact that there are too many clues left behind is not given enough emphasis. A confusing set of alibis is hardly commented on and the symbolism associated with the murder in the final reveal is not even mentioned.
The big reveal is the highlight of the film and I must commend the script for establishing the motive behind the murder as solidly as it did. The motive of the murder is linked with Ratchett’s horrible past. However, the focus shifts from this and onto Poirot. He is shown to be teary-eyed, confessing to an old lover’s photograph that he cannot solve this one. I can understand the appeal of making Poirot more human. After all, the arrogance that comes hand in hand with genius reached a point where Christie herself wanted to stop writing him. But at the end of the day we rely on his little grey cells to be smarter than us and expect nothing but brilliance. The revelation also leads to a moral dilemma on Poirot’s part. The murder is of a vicious gangster and therefore somewhat deserved – should he tell the authorities or not? In this film we are encouraged to witness Poirot’s flaws and his growth from seeing in black and white to shades of grey.
A few positives – I adored how this was filmed; the cinematography was excellent. You get beautiful sweeping shots of the Orient Express, of Istanbul where the journey begins and of the snowy mountains where the train is eventually trapped. It’s hard to tell what is real and what is CGI. I enjoyed the perspective in the scene where Poirot enters the train for the first time and is accompanied by Mrs. Hubbard. The camera tracks left and follows the pair from outside the train looking in, allowing the viewer to also focus on the characters in the background. I, unlike many, quite liked Branagh’s excessively large moustache, I think it played on the notion that genius and eccentricity come hand in hand. Finally, I was impressed with Josh Gad’s acting, having previously thought of him as simply a comedic actor, I was surprised at how well he played the role of MacQueen, a lawyer turned secretary for a gangster boss.