What’s the point in a murder mystery where everyone knows who did it?
This is the hurdle that Murder on the Orient Express must clear. Kenneth Branagh has chosen to adapt one of Agatha Christie’s more famous Poirot mysteries, one in which the solution is more famous than the puzzle. It’s rare that a twist can be so completely spoiled and yet understood by merely a three word utterance. The quality must be in the telling of that story!
Fortunately Branagh has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to invigorate the familiar narrative. Opening his story in exotic Istanbul with an entertaining, though rather contrived, little mystery that establishes Poirot’s irascible (and I think newly OCD) character as he demonstrates some Sherlock-style clairvoyance. From there he is called back to London and coincidentally finds himself amidst a plot to murder a notorious gangster.
The exotic locations featured in the film are amongst its greatest strengths. 1930s Istanbul looks gorgeous and the Orient Express itself is a beautiful set. Branagh also has some technical bravado to show off his sets. Some beautifully realised long takes pan down the set and feature multiple setups with the focus changing throughout. Techniques like this and some daring choices in camera angles (including an aerial introduction of the crime scene) keep things feeling cinematic.
The greatest weakness of the film is that the plot is so cumbersome. Agatha Christie spent two hundred and fifty pages exploring the backstory of the twelve suspects in the case, and didn’t have an action opener. The film does suffer from having to cover a lot of ground and more often than not does so through expositional dialogue, failing to make use of the visual nature of the medium.
Consequently, the film occasionally feels bogged down. Once the murder happens, it feels less like an opportunity to dive into the private darkness of twelve individuals and more like a burden as we have to keep track of how these characters all slot together. It feels constrained by its plot and consequently it’s hard to be fully immersed into the film’s world.
Performances, however, are excellent across the board. Branagh plays Poirot as a caricature, but a very endearing one. He’s like a broadly drawn children’s television character; comfortingly familiar but without much depth. Other standout performances come from Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe. Johnny Depp gives one of his less irritating moustachioed performances and Michelle Pfeiffer excels as the film’s lush. The only problem is that we don’t get nearly enough of a chance to relish these performances. The film should be more of a character study, but unfortunately spends a little more time being an adventure film.
I can only imagine how the film will play to an audience who don’t know the twist. There were certainly no cries of surprise from my audience from the final reveal. It is, and always has been, a satisfying ,though fairly contrived explanation, but I can’t help but feel some will become frustrated in trying to untangle all the plot threads.
Murder on the Orient Express is a fun adventure film, but fares less well as a coherent murder mystery. Branagh’s bold direction and some excellent performances just about make up for the shortcomings of an overstuffed and slightly clumsy film.
3.5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.