A disappointing but undoubtedly stylish adaptation of a classic detective story. It starts well but doesn't deliver on its promised thrills, failing to make use of its star-studded cast.
Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is not the first time we have seen this classic murder mystery on-screen, first making its cinematic debut in 1974 with Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed adaptation. As an actor-turned-director with a body of work that consists largely of literary source material, it’s not surprising that Branagh was attracted to this novel even though the story will be familiar to a large proportion of the film’s audience. Having thus far failed to gain as much acclaim for his directorial work as he has received for his acting performances, taking on Murder on the Orient Express could be seen as a relatively high-risk project for Branagh and, unfortunately, the risk fails to pay off in most parts.
Murder on the Orient Express is centred around detective Hercule Poirot’s (Kenneth Branagh) investigation of the brutal murder of a suspicious businessman (Johnny Depp) on board a luxury train service. It is suspected that one of the 13 passengers (all of whom are played by a recognisable name) is responsible for this murder and it’s up to Poriot to find out who – a typical whodunit narrative. Most of the film takes place on this very train but it is ironically the scenes that occur away from the deadly railroad that provide the greatest thrills such as a station-set montage that subtly introduces us to each of the supporting cast, swooping in on each of their actions and cleverly drawing attention to certain aspects of their character that will become important as the murder investigation gets underway. However, the cinematic triumph of moments like this is bittersweet, as the pacing of much of the film does not live up to these early expectations; the depiction of Poirot’s investigation on-board the train is overly reliant on bland dialogue and fails to continue the initial thrill ride.
Branagh delivers another solid performance to add to his well-respected acting career, giving his character a real sense of emotional depth yet adding an equally as impressive comedic charm to Poirot in his meticulous attention to detail. This is nothing new in this day and age given the success of modern-day murder mystery dramas such as Sherlock – Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in the lead role offering a similar blend of emotional intensity and comedy – but nonetheless, Branagh still delivers an impressive performance as Poirot. However, Murder on the Orient Express is all a little too self-indulgent; the excessive amount of time that Branagh spends in the limelight gives the supporting cast very little time to shine which, given their calibre, is a real shame. Michelle Pfeiffer is the most impressive of the lot but the talents of most – Judi Dench and Daisy Ridley in particular – are wasted and the film draws to a close without these star names having been given a real chance to showcase their talents. Elsewhere, Johnny Depp delivers a questionable performance; although it is not long before his time on-screen comes to an end, his portrayal of the murder victim lacks depth and falls into one too many stereotypical traps.
Murder on the Orient Express redeems itself somewhat through its visual characteristics. Although it is perhaps deployed a little too frequently, the use of an aerial camera depicts the vast snowy landscape that surrounds the railway in the most stylish way possible and provides a well-needed break from the restrictive and alienating setting of the train. Not only is the cinematography visually endearing, it also helps build up the tension with the camera delving into the deepest depths of the train, desperate to escape and desperate to find the culprit in this tale.
Despite its lavish visuals and moments of promise, Murder on the Orient Express is more of a disappointment than it is a triumph. Prioritising style over substance, Branagh’s take on this literary classic leaves us wondering what could’ve been, a real shame given the talents of its cast and exciting opening. It’s a journey worth witnessing but not one you’ll be overly eager to board again any time soon.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017), directed by Kenneth Branagh, is distributed in the UK by 20th Century Fox, Certificate 12A.