November 12, 2017
Based on the time-honored novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express boasts an incredible ensemble cast including Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and Kenneth Branagh (who also directs). But with great talent comes great expectation, and this train comes up just short.
While the entire cast delivers, Branagh is particularly outstanding as Hercule Poirot, who is, as he self-proclaims “probably the greatest detective in the world.” So basically the French Sherlock Holmes. Like Sherlock (or at least the 21st-century Benedict Cumberbatch iteration), Poirot’s deductive greatness brings with it a form of Depression-era OCD; everything must be in order, and there is no grey, only black and white. When Poirot is aboard a train on which someone is murdered, naturally, he is going to be the one tasked to find the culprit, and the well-crafted script by Michael Green, who recently co-wrote Blade Runner 2049 and Logan, makes for some clever and enjoyable verbal sparring.
Branagh’s previous directing efforts include Thor and 2015’s Cinderella along with many Shakespeare adaptations, and his polished work behind the camera is both stylish and classic, exemplified by a single, continuous shot as Poirot marches through the train station and boards the Orient Express, with multiple interactions along the way. It’s a fun sequence that allows Poirot to meet his fellow passengers while introducing these eccentric new characters to the audience. There is also a recurring theme of duplicity throughout which Branagh incorporates using mirrors and glass to show two or three reflections of a character in any given scene.
Still, Murder on the Orient Express, with all its exceptional talent, witty dialogue, and plush cinematography, has a staggering overall lack of balance.
In the first act, the movie has a quirky, almost zany tone, a sort of Wes Anderson-meets-Coen Brothers hybrid of moustache-twitching frivolity. Then, just as the viewer might be coming to embrace this idiosyncrasy, the titular murder takes place and there is a sharp postmortem shift in tonality as, rather abruptly, the movie becomes a seriously sober murder-mystery.
Now that gravity and solemnity are the name of the game and the peculiar humor has left the building, Poirot’s subsequent interviews with the suspects provide plenty of gripping suspense and intrigue, although there’s a sense of only mere surface-level emotionalism. That is, until the surprisingly sentimental conclusion. It’s stirring and it’s poignant but unfortunately it once again destabilizes the equilibrium of the film.
Murder on the Orient Express is a satisfying if not extraordinary film. The story is engaging enough that each of these varying tones could have successfully carried the film on its own and all the twists and turns would have still resonated, and while each is fairly effective on an individual level, considering our hero Poirot is such a stickler for balance, it’s unsettling that the movie itself has none.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars