‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Is A Breezy, Coach Class Ride (Movie Review)

In theory, it would seem like people should welcome another take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. A new adaptation means putting together a mix of veteran actors and rising stars in a presumably handsomely filmed production that focuses on the acting in a character-centric mystery. Director and star Kenneth Branagh accomplishes this goal, but it’s all done with the bare minimum of success. Some performers stand out in this ensemble, mustache-heavy, period melodrama, but it never does much to rise above the familiar material being presented.

Based on Christie’s popular 1934 novel that has been adapted multiple times (movies, TV, games), Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, a famed Belgian detective looking to take a break from his cases. This proves impossible, as his trip on the Orient Express is delayed by a sudden stop on the tracks due to an avalanche…oh and the brutal stabbing of one of the passengers. The rest of the film relies on Poirot using his intellect and instincts to determine which of the other passengers did the deed.

Despite being a showcase for a murder mystery and Poirot’s very distinctive mustache, the film works best in its opening third. Less concerned with solving a crime, I rather enjoyed the various introductions of this large cast and the unfamiliar exchanges they all shared. Rather than seeing a focus on one specific situation, it was fun to watch a talented group perform as their characters and interact with one another. This includes the presence of Johnny Depp, who deserves special mention.

It may be something of a spoiler for those unfamiliar to learn that Depp is the eventual murder victim that sets off the main plot. However, given how Depp’s stock is relatively low these days, some may (sadly) delight in the opportunity to know this ahead of time. Regardless, it is Depp’s continued skill as an actor that put him in the position of having one of the film’s best performances. He plays a dirty gangster with many enemies and there’s some clear meta-commentary in Depp’s positioning in this role. Regardless of how Depp felt taking on the part, he relishes in the bit of character work he gets to do here.

The rest of the cast varies depending on the amount of time spent with them and the opportunities afforded for them to shine based on Michael Green’s script. Since the film is relatively claustrophobic, it primarily revolves around Poirot’s interrogations within different train compartments to see what good comes out of the cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. As you can tell by that list, that’s a lot of people to satisfy, and while Dench may come off as more of a cameo and Ridley feels underserved, despite having some of the most screentime, no one ever feels like they are coasting.

To Branagh’s credit, the film at least manages to feel like more than just a vanity project for himself, as he allows everyone to have fun playing dress up. Never having to resort to cheap theatrics as far as newly added action scenes to satisfy modern audiences, the film never breaks away from being an ensemble piece that highlights the costume design. Filmed in 65mm, Murder on the Orient Express may not feel overly ambitious, but Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography adds to the look of the film that does find time to venture outside the train while making great use of the format for the interiors as well.

Patrick Doyle’s moody score does less of a service to the film if the goal was attempting to vie for some sense of prestige. Additionally, while sometimes verging on self-aware, the film’s design put itself in melodramatic territory quite often thanks to certain reveals, actions and Branagh’s own decision to have Poirot stare quietly at the picture of a woman he loves. That said, the film finds its share of humor and never purports itself as being an essential work for everyone involved.

Again, no one coasts, but Murder on the Orient Express feels like a film made for the sake of actors and filmmakers getting to have fun with their modern take on the Christie novel, rather than the be-all, end-all interpretation of the material. Not hurting is the added bits to incorporate race-based concerns, especially as it provides a proper motivation for why Poirot ultimately decides to attempt to solve the case. The film may be set in the 1930’s, but it’s the little areas where a fresh voice does add something for the film to say, however slight.

The film may be inessential, but it is a nice showcase for a few performers, namely Depp, Odom, Gad and Pfeiffer. Branagh is also having a lot of fun as Poirot, even if his direction never takes any risks with the material. That may not be enough to warrant an immediate viewing, but the film’s presentation at least suggests a large screen format viewing if it can be found. With slight changes to Christie’s story, it more or less comes down to the joy of getting a new cast in a compelling mystery. As such, Murder on the Orient Express is comfortable viewing material, but not quite first-class entertainment.

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