Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green
Tackling a classic work of fiction is always a risk, especially a source material as celebrated as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. It becomes even more risky when you consider the novel has been adapted multiple times before, most notably in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 screen adaptation starring Albert Finney in the lead role as renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, a legendary literary character himself. And yet, when I heard Kenneth Branagh would direct and star in a new adaption, I knew immediately that this would be perhaps the safest of safe bets. It’s a classic tale, and features a bonkers great cast (more on that soon), and features a Shakespearean director at the helm. There is very little that could potentially go wrong with Murder on the Orient Express, and yet there is also very little that could go right, resulting in exactly the film I thought it would be, perfectly fine entertainment.
Set in the 1930s, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) finds himself in Jerusalem to solve a classic whodunit: the Priest, the Rabbi or the Imam? After showing off his brilliance, Poirot decides to take a vacation on the Orient Express at the invitation of old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). While on the train, sketchy passenger Ratchett (Johnny Depp) pleads with Poirot for his protective services, fearing someone is out to get him. After Poirot declines, Ratchett turns up dead, while the engine derails due to an avalanche. With the train stranded, and a murder on his hands, Bouc turns to Poirot to solve the crime before the police get there. As Poirot interrogates and investigates, a strange mystery begins to unfold between the 12 diverse passengers (Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom, Jr.) on the Orient Express.
Murder on the Orient Express is a perfectly fine, perfectly entertaining film. Let’s get that out of the way upfront. Kenneth Branagh is a very capable filmmaker and actor, and he shows both those things here, ridiculous mustache notwithstanding. He has a very traditional view of cinema, as can be evidenced by his Shakespearean background, which ultimately limits the potential of a story like this. It has been done before, and is a well known mystery novel, so what can Branagh bring to the table that is new and fresh? The answer, unfortunately, is nothing. Murder on the Orient Express is exactly as you could conceive of it. No surprises, no flourishes, but solidly entertaining and with very few flaws. It’s not flashy, it’s not in the best of the year category. It’s catch it on TV and watch the rest of it good, and there should be nothing wrong with that.
The problem is, with a cast assembled like this one, there is something wrong with that. Branagh plays everything so safe, and with an ensemble of this size, each great actor feels far more sidelined than they ought to be. Cruz, Ridley, Dench, Dafoe, Gad, etc. they are all good here, they are just hardly here, which is of no fault of their own, or even of Branagh. But why cast them to sit idly by while Branagh envelopes the whole screen as Poirot? I don’t know, even that seems like a petty gripe, but I have to find something to complain about since this just wasn’t a great film, even though it had every reason to be. Ultimately, I think Branagh the director plays things far too safely, especially as it pertains to the pacing and styling of the film.
There are no flourishes in this film, nothing that might suggest it was even made in 2017. What sets it apart from the 1974 adaptation? Nothing. What sets it apart from the original source material? Other than a few minor changes, nothing. It’s an unnecessary adaption, and while that might be the film’s greatest crime, since it is rather pleasant and entertaining, this is a famous mystery novel for a reason after all, it seems rather disappointing that this wasn’t the best film of the year. Expectations can be a fickle thing. So if you go into it looking for what I was, which was a simple, well-executed, entertaining and uninspiring interpretation of a great story, something to escape for a few hours, then Murder on the Orient Express is perfect for you. If you have greater ambition for this film, then quell your expectation, or prepare yourself for disappointment.