Based on the novel by Agatha Christie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is exactly what the title suggests. A murder has occurred on an extravagant train ride. The twelve remaining passengers aboard are all suspects. Conveniently, the greatest detective in the world, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), donning an equally extraordinary mustache is also on the train. The buddy team duo of detective Poirot and his gnarly mustache must solve the case before the killer strikes again.
I’m always on board for a good murder mystery. Set it on a train full of elegant costumes and fine dining during a period where dressing up is not only appropriate but expected for every occasion and I’m in crime thriller heaven. Throwing extra coal to the fire of excitement is an impressive cast list that includes: Johnny Depp (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) as a scar-faced gangster, Josh Gad (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) as his assistant, Daisy Ridley (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS) as a young governess, Leslie Odom Jr. (HAMILTON) as a doctor attempting to keep his interracial relationship with the governess a secret, Penelope Cruz (VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA) as a dedicated woman of faith, Michelle Pheiffer (MOTHER!) as a rich widow hunting for her next husband, Judie Dench (PHILOMENA) as some important wealthy old lady and Willem Dafoe (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL) as someone else. Olivia Colman (THE LOBSTER), Derek Jacobi (CINDERELLA) and Marwan Kenzari (THE MUMMY) as other people. And probably a couple of others. I sorta lost track. There are a lot of characters.
Adapted by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh who also takes the lead role, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS sets up the character of detective Poirot fairly conventionally. He is particular about perfection and balance. We know this not just because he demands his two morning eggs to be identical in size and is even willing to stick his clean shoe in horse droppings matching what he accidentally stepping in with the other foot, but also because he overtly says so. While the character is spoon-fed to the audience, it is light and funny with Branagh bringing a certain charm to the character. However, once everyone has boarded the train and after the murder actually happens, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS quickly loses steam. The lavish locomotive is halted by an avalanche and so is the momentum of the picture. Poirot spends most of the film blandly interviewing each suspect one on one. Many of the characters are barely a face on the train and none of them present much intrigue. The actors must spill out a lot of information in a limited amount of screen time, which sometimes come off a bit hokey. When the whodunit answer is finally revealed, rather than the feeling of euphoric revelation, the reaction is more of an… okay?
Technically speaking, the film almost feels epic on the big screen, sweeping across the train through the cold snowy mountains and then moving the camera through the individual cars on the inside. Branagh delivers a few interesting shots by following the crime scene through a ceiling lens looking directly down on the evidence. And then once more with a nice continuing tracking shot in one take when all the characters are first boarding the train. But these grand gestures aren’t enough to save a bogged down screenplay.
This is not the first time MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS has been adapted for screen. In 2001, there was a TV movie starring Alfred Molina, a Japanese TV miniseries in 2015, and even a PC computer video game in 2006. But the story’s most famous adaptation was in 1974 directed by Sydney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Poirot with Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Vanessa Redgrave who took home an Oscar for Supporting Actress.
I’m not sure how the current film compares to the previous versions. However, when creating a crime mystery, it’s important to add tension to the ticking clock and perhaps some depth and heart to the supporting characters. The final conclusion is both a bit of a head scratcher and still not entirely surprising, which makes for a beautiful looking picture but also an uninteresting one. While I was initially thrilled for the trip, when the story finally arrives at its destination, I no longer cared. On the other hand, that is one glorious mustache.