There’s a high chance that even if you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Murder on the Orient Express, the sheer mention of its name rings a bell; it’s a story originally penned in 1934, and has since taken on several new lives in the forms of TV adaptations, radio shows, and even a 2006 point-and-click game. Or perhaps the name ‘Hercule Poirot’ is familiar, as the fictional Belgian detective has appeared in over 30 novels and has been portrayed by countless actors since the early 1930s.
So why care about yet another adaptation? Well, the all-star cast is certainly a big draw, as is the fact it’s a period-piece murder-mystery; not exactly a popular genre amongst the current Hollywood blockbusters. But does it manage to justify its existence? Well, kind of.
After a fairly spectacular opening sequence which introduces us to the brilliance of the aforementioned detective Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the film chugs along at a steady pace and introduces all the key players who will eventually become embroiled in one of the world’s most famous murder cases. There’s the likes of the Doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), the Professor (Willem Dafoe), and the Assistant (Josh Gad) who fill up the archetypes that’ll join Poirot on his journey. Unfortunately, regardless of the brilliant cast, they rarely become more than that – archetypes. It’ll be hard to remember any character names, even mere moments after leaving the cinema.
But poor characterisation doesn’t completely spoil what is otherwise a truly engaging narrative. After everybody boards the train in a sequence that highlights the beautiful cinematography of the piece, it isn’t long before a murder has been committed. Everybody is a suspect, and Poirot must narrow down the clues to pinpoint exactly who perpetrated such a grisly crime. And like the best mysteries, it’s told in a fashion which slowly reveals clues that could culminate in catching the killer – before they kill again.
At least, that initially seems to be the case. I won’t spoil the infamous ending so that, if you’re like me, you aren’t aware of it before going into the movie. However, the teasing of clues doesn’t quite go the way you would expect, and this isn’t in the film’s favour. Rather than a shocking twist, Murder on the Orient Express concludes with an ending which feels much more rushed than it ought to.
I believe the easiest explanation for this to be that it simply doesn’t allow enough time to establish the characters. When you’ve got this many suspects, it’s important to understand each one’s motivations and goals; that way, if there are any sudden revelations, they feel all the more shocking. Instead, the film relays little more than what the characters’ occupations are, and this makes it hard to really care about the outcome. It doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the twist ending, mind, but means that it’s not as nearly entertaining of a movie as it could be.
When the performances are allowed some space to breathe, though, there’s some real standouts. Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair and the shoes of the leading man does an excellent job in bringing such a dated tale to modern audiences, and manages to lace genuine humour through a story that could have been much too dry. Daisy Ridley as the enigmatic Miss Mary Debenham does a great job in giving the film the much needed human element, but unfortunately, like much of the cast, she’s criminally underutilised. The same can be said for the likes of Johnny Depp; regardless of the man’s personal issues, he really embodies the sleazy, dirty ‘Ratchett’. Hey, maybe it’s method acting.
Will you leave the cinema stunned and amazed? No, definitely not. But Murder on the Orient express doesn’t seem to expect that; it’s a fun mystery which unravels at a reasonable pace, and packs enough narrative urgency to never feel dull. Come for the spectacular cast, and stay for a well-known story that’s told in an above-average manner.
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It won't stun modern audiences, but Branagh's take on Agatha Christie's legendary tale certainly won't bore. If you fancy an engaging mystery, you could do much worse.
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