In Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh resurrects the whodunit mystery, but it all ends up pretty lifeless. Before I start, I should confess I’ve never actually read Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, or seen Sidney Lumet’s well-received 1971 film adaptation, but I don’t think either really has bearing on whether or not you’d like this film, because, either way, you probably won’t.
By picking a Christie novel, and one of her most famous at that, Kenneth Branagh is reaching for both a nostalgic appeal to neat mystery stories and the kind of stylish ensemble-driven movie that only becomes viable during the holiday season. Maybe it reaches that, but it’s not exactly a high bar. The film follows famed Belgian detective Hercule Pierot (Branagh himself), whose smarts are perhaps only outshined by his absurd mustache. Traveling on the Paris-bound four-car Orient Express, he encounters a murder he’s compelled to solve, where everybody’s a suspect but no one cares.
Setting aside the film’s style, a plot like this requires, in the least, impeccable casting — and this is such a weird combination of thespians and what’s-his-names. There are A-listers Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer, but then there’s also Josh Gadd. The performances are all over the place. Did I ever think I’d have to watch a movie where a meek and modest Penelope Cruz has to play opposite a boozy and cartoonish Josh Gadd? Nope. Michelle Pfeiffer tries her best as a sultry aging vixen, but I’d prefer to remember her roles in Mother! and Wizard of Lies as reinassance-era Pfeiffer. (If you do decide to go see this movie, yes that is her singing over the closing credits.) Daisy Ridley gets absolutely nothing to do, and neither does the guy playing Jafar in the live-action Aladdin. This really could have been a Gosford Park (2001), or a postmodern retelling like Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), but it’s content to just chug along instead.
I’m not sure I should blame the actors, since the characters feel so barely there. As foundational as she is to the whodunit genre, Branagh makes Agatha Christie feel dull, making her look like the kind of writer geared solely towards preteen mystery enthusiasts. These mysteries are only fun (for me at least) if the audience can play Detective along with the movie. But instead we get another Sherlock character, an impossibly brilliant and observant lead that notices and recalls things that the audience could not have at all seen or predicted, and it’s not done in any smart or elaborate way either. So, there aren’t really any stakes, there is no tension, there’s just a mystery that no one really cares to be solved. It’s straightforward enough that some younger sleuths might have fun piecing it along and placing their bets, but there are so many long stretches of slowly-churned dialogue, I can’t see a kid not being completely bored halfway through.
So much of that is because Branagh seems very content on focusing on the least interesting person in this movie: Branagh. His version of Inspector Pierot is so smugly over-the-top that he could have made for a fun movie. In a prologue where Pierot has to diffuse a brewing civil war in Jerusalem, the impeccably clean OCD detective steps in a pile of horseshit. Simmering, he says: “It’s not the … It’s the imbalance,” and he proceeds to plant his other foot right into the stink. Little fun character quirks like these help ignite a spark, but the rest of the cast is never given a chance. Since the plot obviously calls for everyone to all act reasonably suspiciously, the secrecy makes for a really boring watch. It feels like everyone is playing off a single-line description of their characters; they’re mostly just fumbling around playing vague archetypes, waiting for a star-making soliloquy that never comes. Instead, Branagh gobbles up most of the script, allowing each actor their measly ration of ten or so lines before we’re taken to another one of Pierot’s overlong monologues. The writing is all generally disappointing, and it was a surprise to read that the screenplay is written by Michael Green, who co-wrote Blade Runner 2049 and Logan.
Branagh also betrays the sprightliness of the initial scenes with his directing choices as well. Scenes that should be quick and playful are treated with slow sweeping shots. Casual conversations are treated with weird canted angles that never really make sense. The shakiness during the first twenty minutes on the train, which a character explicitly addresses (waxing poetics about how the gentle rocking of a train brings strangers closer together or something) was I guess an attempt at atmosphere but it really just made me want to get out at the next stop. In the end, neither the ride nor the destination is worth the ticket price.
Here’s a list of much better (recent) movies set on trains:
- Train to Busan (2016)
- Snow Piercer (2014)
- Source Code (2011)
- The Commuter (2017) (I mean the title alone!)