Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp and Judy Dench
It may speak to how good or not so good a film is when you find yourself paying more attention to the cinematography than the actual scene itself. During a scene late in the film I was loving the angle in which they filmed Willem Dafoes face through a multi-paneled glass door. It was then I realized I wasn’t fully invested in the actual storyline of the film. Could this have been because I knew the story well, having just finished the book that morning, or could it have been that this slow burn of a pace fell just shy of being truly engaging.
Agatha Christie is arguably the most well known author of all time. Her series of Hercule Poirot novels are widely regarded as some of the best detective stories ever written. They are headlined by Murder on the Orient Express. This film is an adaptation of that book and a remake of the 1974 film of the same name. The movie paces similarly to the book, slowly and methodically. If you think about it there really isn’t a ton of material here to work with. It is 1934 and a train gets slightly derailed due to a heavy snow drift. One of its passengers the night before unluckily had just been murdered. Even more unluckily is that the worlds greatest detective, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth ‘wait, he directed that?’ Branagh) happens to be on this train and now has plenty of time to solve this crime.
Lacking in depth becomes the one negative theme for this film and it starts from the opening scene. A scene that was completed created for the film to simply add depth to the Poirot character as well as a bit of humor. Now once on the train the quirky Poirot goes from character to character interrogating each of them searching for clues as to who killed the man known as Edward Ratchett (Johnny ‘I don’t like your face’ Depp).
Here’s where the main crux of the ‘bad’ in the film lied. Twelve different characters were introduced and not one was given enough time to not only develop, but for us to become invested into. I didn’t get enough into any one character to want or not want them to be the murderer. Besides the beginning, two more scenes of ‘action’ and one of a dangerous plot twist were added to help spice up the films momentum a bit. Yet with all that; once the conclusion came and the reveal of how Ratchett was murdered is presented it didn’t hit on as an emotional level as I feel the filmmakers or even Agatha would have hoped.
Now for the good. I actually enjoyed watching the film. I liked it better than the book and felt it did a solid job of presenting the story. Its use of flashback intermittent throughout, and in black and white, added that extra bit that filled in the blanks while we tried to help solve this murder. My three favorite things were the acting, cinematography and set design. A small character in the film becomes that it’s 1934. The nuances of the times presents many challenges and advantages that Poirot goes through in using his detective skills. The 1930’s style cars, outfits, accessories and the train itself are a blast to see come to life on screen. The cinematography is a lot of fun. The choices that Branagh and his film crew made for some shots really were unique and added to what could have been a bland story. Through windows and glass doors as well as overhead shots that panned from hallways and into rooms really added to the film.
Lastly the acting. What a loaded ensemble this cast was. Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe and Daisy Ridley all played every character so well. Michelle Pfeifer was truly fantastic from start to finish. It was Branaghs portrayal of Poirot that had me worried going in but very pleasantly surprised coming out. He added a quirkiness to the character that evened out his level of seriousness. He wasn’t over the top where he very easily could have been. A truly job well done by Branagh and the entire cast.
This time of year has a lot of options in the theaters right now and upcoming. But you won’t be disappointed if you chose to spend your night at the cinema seeing Murder on the Orient Express.
7 out of 10
You can also hear my review on episode 57 of Take Too Podcast. Available on iTunes, Stitcher and Podbean.