Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Premise: Based on the novel by Agatha Christie. Set in 1934, an art dealer is murdered aboard a train car filled with upper class passengers. Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) investigates the crime.
What Works: Murder on the Orient Express is a handsomely produced film. This is an old fashioned story but it’s told in a contemporary way and the picture is an effective mix of old and new filmmaking styles. The set design, costuming, and special effects are first rate and the sequences of the train traveling through the mountains and getting derailed are especially well done. Murder on the Orient Express features an impressive cast including Kenneth Branagh. Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe, among others, and their performances are key to the success of the movie. Mysteries are like puzzles. The fun is in the details and in Murder on the Orient Express those details are wrapped up in the subtleties of the characters and the ways they reveal themselves, whether intentionally or accidentally. The filmmakers use those details effectively and the cast give each of the central characters some depth while allowing enough distance to maintain the mystery. Kenneth Branagh is a lot of fun to watch as Hercule Poirot. He captures the idiosyncrasies of the character and his performance includes lot of wit.
What Doesn’t: Many of the flaws of Murder on the Orient Express are inherent to the source material. The logic of the story is tenuous and the reveal of the climax is preposterous. The murder victim is revealed to have been a terrible person and so it’s difficult to feel any impulse for justice. And because the victim was a villain, there is an ethical question at the center of Murder on the Orient Express. The moviemakers struggle to smooth over the flaws of the source material and in some respects they make those flaws worse while failing to capitalize on the moral ambiguity of the story. The weaknesses of the plotting might be ignorable if the film kept viewers on the edge of their seats but this version of Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t take advantage of some of the inherent potential of its premise. A derailed train stranded on a mountain pass is inherently claustrophobic but the film offers littles sense of that. The filmmakers also fail to maximize the ticking-clock plot device. The authorities are on their way and Poirot has a limited amount of time to solve the crime. This version of Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t have much tension. There is little sense of rising stakes or of the story moving toward its climax. Most of the film consists of interview after interview with Poirot making inferences but not really picking apart the details and examining the clues the way that a good detective ought to do.
Bottom Line: Murder on the Orient Express is a satisfactory movie but it isn’t in any way exceptional. The movie has considerable star power with actors giving nuanced and complex performances but it isn’t very satisfying as a detective story.
Episode: #675 (November 19, 2017)