Murder on the Orient Express
You have to wonder how much of the decision to have Kenneth Branagh adapt Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express lied in his desire to break new boundaries of mustache physics. Hercule Poirot’s classic handlebar moustache has managed to encroach its way across both cheeks into a sort of multi-layered monstrosity of grooming, one that requires its own night mask to stay pristine. Branagh’s Poirot is obsessive compulsive to a fault, just as concerned with the straightening of others’ neckties as he is solving crimes, but he’s really just a construct behind that mustache. It’s odd and almost quaint seeing a character like Poirot in this day and age after decades and decades of his portrayal in other films and media (including a well-regarded version of this same story from Sidney Lumet in the 70s). Mystery stories still carry plenty of cache in the current pop culture landscape, but the world has moved past the “gather everyone in the parlor so I can reveal the murderer” style stories that Christie peddled over her career. It might not be advisable to reimagine it in the modern day, as adaptations like that can become overly bogged down with references and colloquialisms, but staying overly faithful to the book could easily become unbearably stodgy.
Faced with this decision, Branagh decides to avoid rocking the boat, sticking to the specifics of Christie’s novel. Set in the early 20th century, the film starts while Poirot is attempting to enjoy a vacation, but is roped into traveling to London on official business, booking a place on the oddly full Orient Express through his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). His car is full of all sorts of colorful personalities (played by Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer and Willem Dafoe among others), but one specific unsavory type, a shady art dealer who sells fakes to his clients (Johnny Depp), is convinced someone is out to get him. The train is partially derailed by an avalanche, and while the group is stranded, he is discovered dead inside his locked cabin. And everyone is a suspect.
Alongside production designer Jim Clay, costume designer Alexandra Byrne and Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Branagh builds a sumptuous world that offers a slice of the moneyed elite from long ago. Even with its general lack of settings (beginning in Istanbul, then spending the majority of the rest of the film in one of three train cars), it takes advantage of them to the fullest. The camera has a ton of fun panning across various glass surfaces that reflect and refract light every which way as passengers sip wine out of crystal goblets and obsess over the quality of pastries, cakes and petit fours. It’s the sort of movie made with giant screens in mind, a widescreen spectacle on par with some of the better visual films of the year. So it seems like everything is in place. Great cast, great source material, great visuals, and a strong enough director to bring it all together. So why is the final product just...dull?
There’s an odd bloodlessness to Murder on the Orient Express. Not actual bloodlessness because there’s, you know, a murder, but it seems to undeniably lack a certain sense of passion. Branagh leans into the 1930’s feel of the novel (published in 1934), and it’s more than just the period costumes. The dialogue feels oddly stilted more often than not, and the delivery of that dialogue can be hit or miss depending on the scene. It’s not even a case of certain actors or actresses seeming out of place, because their demeanor can shift as Poirot unmasks their various lies, and some seem better equipped at establishing certain aspects of their characters than others. Ridley probably comes off the best of the cast all told; she has that sort of classical 1930s beauty that fits the period style like a glove, and there’s a poise and confidence to her acting that proves she’ll be a big deal even after Star Wars runs its course. The rest of the sprawling cast is varying degrees of fine, but no one particularly stands out among the crowd of famous faces. There’s just too much.
The idea behind Murder on the Orient Express, that Branagh would get to put together such a huge cast to essentially make the Agatha Christie version of Soderberg's Ocean's 11, seemed like it would at least be pretty fun regardless. It can be fun, and the screenplay from Michael Green (who’s had a busy 2017 with credits on Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049) keeps the plot lively, even if the dialogue is often lacking. But the momentum always seems to be just a smidge off, whether it’s taking a bit too long to get into the nitty gritty of the story or over-focusing on Poirot’s internal narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s never a moment that the film is bad, but true inspiration is few and far between. It’s little more than an enjoyable mystery competently told and well shot. That does count for something, but it doesn’t count for much.