Review: Branagh's 'Murder on the Orient Express' is Old-Fashioned and Stiflingly Stodgy

First published in 1934, Agatha Christie's novel, Murder on the Orient Express, is considered one of the most suspenseful and thrilling mysteries ever written. The book, which concerns the murder of a wealthy businessman aboard a luxury train, features one of Christie's most famous & long-lived characters, detective Hercule Poirot. The Belgian sleuth with a magnificent mustache has appeared in more than 30 novels and 50 short stories and has been portrayed on radio, in film, and on TV by various actors, including Albert Finney, Sir Peter Ustinov, Tony Randall, Alfred Molina, Orson Welles, and David Suchet. Now, 83 years after its debut, Murder on the Orient Express receives another lavish, star-studded film adaptation, this time by actor-turned-director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), who also stars.

If you haven't read Christie's novel or seen one of its many previous adaptations, Orient Express begins in 1930s Istanbul with Poirot (Branagh) meeting up with his old friend, Monsieur Bouc (Tom Bateman), the director of business on the Orient Express, a long-distance passenger train traveling through Europe that specializes in luxury and comfort. Poirot, taking a much-deserved break between cases, decides to board his debonair companion's train for a scenic trip through the Dinaric Alps. While on board, the fastidious detective meets an interesting assortment of characters from every walk of life. One particularly peculiar passenger, businessman Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), attempts to enlist the former policeman's services as he fears for his life, though Poirot respectfully declines.

The next morning, the train's engine derails due to an avalanche, and Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his quarters. With evidence and suspects piling up, Poirot puts his brilliant detective mind to work on his most challenging case yet. Could it be Ratchett's flask-swigging assistant McQueen (Josh Gad)? His butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi)? The flirtatious widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer)? Or perhaps it was the Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde (Olivia Colman)? Poirot's suspect list is a long one, including the fetching governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.); Hungarian diplomat Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his wife Elena (Lucy Boynton); the Spanish missionary Pilar (Penélope Cruz); Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), and Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an auto dealer.

Murder on the Orient Express Review

With a script written by Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) and cinematography by DP Haris Zambarloukos (Mamma Mia!, Eye in the Sky), Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is a stiflingly stodgy murder mystery with all the intrigue and suspense of Ernest Saves Christmas. Green's by-the-numbers script serves as a mostly faithful adaptation, designed to make Christie's story more palatable to contemporary audiences. But Joe Wright's Atonement, this isn't. Branagh's film is handsomely staged with an impressive ensemble, but the question that consumed my mind during its 114-minute runtime wasn't who killed Ratchett, but what the point was in dusting off Christie's old-fashioned thriller only to dump even more dust on top of it.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is so impossibly old-fashioned that I had to check my hands afterward for liver spots. It is at least a richly detailed film, with top-notch work by production designer Jim Clay and costume designer Alexandra Byrne, but for all its exquisite trappings – the fine woods, leather, and china that adorn the coach, and the glitzy garb – it's too uneven and unfeeling a film to invest in. Christie's richly drawn characters become broad caricatures where we, the audience, must rely on the star's celebrity more than their actual performance. For instance, everyone now hates Johnny Depp, so casting him as the slimy gangster speaks more to the character than anything Ratchett does in the movie. Dafoe plays himself, Pfeiffer plays Miss Scarlet from Clue, and Dame Judi Dench is right at home playing yet another hoity-toity blueblood in a filmography filled with queens, princesses, and other varying degrees of royalty.

Murder on the Orient Express Review

Branagh's melodramatic Poirot has his charms, making for a somewhat likable eccentric who eschews the typical Insufferable Genius™ trope that Benedict Cumberbatch has now trademarked after playing Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing, and Dr. Steven Strange. Branagh's turn isn't as exaggerated as Albert Finney's in Sidney Lumet's 1974 adaptation of the novel, but it still comes off as Esteemed Shakespearean Thespian Kenneth Branagh™ playing a part instead of an actor disappearing into a role. Unfortunately, Branagh is the only actor given an opportunity to shine, as the improbable ensemble is reduced to glorified cameos - bit parts that exist in silos, with little to no interaction between them.

The great thing about Christie's story is observing the passengers and their interactions with not only Poirot but each other. The reader, or viewer in the case of Lumet's adaptation, can examine the facts and take note of certain behaviors and play detective - but here it's a much more passive experience. It is less about deduction and more about inevitability – even if you haven't read Christie's novel, Branagh's heavy-handed direction guides you to the conclusion before his character, the world's greatest detective, can figure it out.

As for the cinematography, DP Zambarloukos used some of the same 65mm film cameras as Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and the result is a level of definition in the color and range of tones and contrasts that gives the film a sharper, richer, more vibrant look. You feel like you're inside it, for better or worse. But as sumptuous as the imagery is, there's no real energy to the camera movement. If the goal was to update Christie's work for a contemporary audience, Branagh's film fails to shake the cobwebs off and instead only reasserts the idea that traditional stories should be told in a traditional manner. I'm not saying an updated Orient Express should be shot like The Bourne Identity, but a film that's shot like a stage play does little to earn its existence. And when the camera does move beyond the train, the landscapes feel too shiny and computer-generated to elicit a sense of wonder. It sacrifices the claustrophobia and panic of being stuck on a train with a murderer for spectacle, and in the end, doesn't achieve either.

Still, despite its flat approach to the murder mystery at hand, I didn't hate Branagh's Orient Express – it's an entirely adequate movie for the holiday season that caters to an older demographic uninterested in big-budget blockbusters like Justice League and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It's a movie that is high on authenticity and the grandeur of British period pieces but fails to offer up anything new to the story. It's the cinematic equivalent of a Werther's Original – a stale but slightly sweet novelty that takes two hours to finish. If you miss this one in theaters, don't worry, it's destined to show up on Netflix as the top recommendation under "Because you watched Downton Abbey."

Adam's Rating: 2.5 out of 5
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