Review: Murder on the Orient Express
Murder mysteries are almost always good fun, and Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel “Murder on the Orient Express” is undoubtedly one of the most well known—and therefore one of the most adapted, as there have been a number of versions on film, stage and television. As it so happens, I had never seen any of these adaptations nor heard any synopsis or other such summation of them, so I got to have a fresh experience with this new version, and I must say I’m glad I did.
A View to a Kill
Coming in at just 114 minutes, “Murder on the Orient Express” is quick, sharp, breezy entertainment. The biggest credit to the film is Sir Kenneth Branagh, who has standout roles both as the legendary mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot and as the film’s director. Branagh is no stranger to adapting classic material as he has directed a total of five Shakespeare adaptations, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” and 2015’s “Cinderella,” among others.
If it wasn’t obvious from the title, the majority of the film takes place in the confines of a handful of train cars. Branagh makes the most of the limited environment, making the train trapped on the side of a snow-capped mountain feel like its own little world. I am always impressed by the incredibly classy, yet not overly pretentious look and style of Branagh’s films, and this is no different. The film has a beautiful and warm aesthetic, despite the coldness of its setting, that makes one sink back into their seat as if they were reading a good book.
The Usual Suspects
“Murder on the Orient Express” has an excellent cast, filled with long established and respected actors as well as fresh faces rising to prominence. The talent involved is clear as each person brings something to their role. That being said, this is Poirot’s movie, and Branagh plays the perfectionist detective expertly. I genuinely believe in his abilities of deduction, but he has enough charm and humor that his obsessive quirks and calculations are endearing rather than off-putting.
The rest of the characters, while elevated by the performances, unfortunately feel more like stock characters that we connect with simply because we recognize who’s playing them. Aside from Branagh, the standouts are Josh Gad, who plays more gruff and understated than his usual childish naïveté, and Leslie Odom Jr., whose performance gives the good doctor an appropriate dose of strength and concern that make him slightly more engaging than the others. Additionally, I found the carefree, relish-in-my-own-sin charm of Bouc, played by Tom Bateman, a surprisingly welcome presence, especially in his interactions with Poirot. They have a strange friendship built on a mutual understanding of each other, which effectively humanizes Poirot as well as gives him someone to bounce his thoughts off of. Also, I just have to say that it is great to see Johnny Depp give a normal performance again.
The quick clip at which the film moves is a double-edged sword. In one sense the fast pacing makes the film feel easy to watch and fun to keep up with, but on the other hand the weight of each individual revelation and turn is somewhat lost as the story moves to the next new development. The film would have benefited from allowing scenes to marinate with the characters a little longer, rather than feeling like it wants to give you just the right amount of information to follow the story before shuffling you through to the next development—and before you know it, the credits are rolling. The film goes for something more emotionally resonant than I expected towards the end, and while I do think it works on some level, it would’ve been more poignant had we been given the time and opportunity to care about the characters in a deeper way.
All that being said, it is a rare complaint for me to say a film should be longer—and that means that I liked it enough to want more of it, so more power to it.
Given the fact that I had no knowledge of any of the plot details of the film, I had a very enjoyable time. I don’t know how it stacks up to other versions or even the original novel, so with that in mind I’d say that if you’re a fan of murder mysteries—or if you just want to spend a comfortable, breezy couple of hours with a film that’s engaging and entertaining enough to feel like a good use of time—then “Murder on the Orient Express” is a solid choice and a good time at the movies.
If you’re looking for something more substantial, then this might leave you underwhelmed. Its flaws are rooted in its desire to be entertaining above all else, where it admittedly succeeds—but at the cost of personal investment in characters and diminished emotional return.
Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Runtime: 114 minutes