This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Genre: Mystery, Drama
For a film that takes place on board a high speed train, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS sure does move as slow as molasses. Based on one of Agatha Christie’s most famous murder-mystery novels, this bland interpretation is as lifeless as the passenger whose death gives the film its name. The all-star cast and beautiful landscapes can’t mask the remake’s overall lack of piquancy. The film drags on too long, too in love with its main character to let the story end when it needs to. The highest praise to dole out to this cheesy whodunit is that it’s a passable adaptation of Christie’s novel, but any way you slice it it’s a bland replication of the 1974 Sidney Lumet film of the same name. One notable difference from the latter is the grand size of the lead’s famous mustache. Besides that, the film doesn’t offer up anything new or exciting—leaving the audience wondering if there needed to be a remake at all.
Chaos ensues amongst the cabins on the famous sleeper train Orient Express when American businessman Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the middle of the night. Each passenger is more suspicious than the next, and renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) must solve this mystery before the train arrives at the next station. After a thunderous avalanche blocks the train’s pathway, Poirot opportunely uses the time to interrogate each rider—discovering hidden motives that could implicate each and every individual on board. All this is made even more complicated by their interconnection with a scandalous criminal investigation from a few years earlier: the kidnapping and murder of young Daisy Armstrong, daughter of famous aviator Colonel John Armstrong. The case damaged many lives, and its reverberation created a domino effect of death and grief felt by many. Branagh manages to deliver the plot understandably enough, but allows it to unfold uninspiring, slow, and dull. The twist ending can already be seen from the beginning of the second act, because unlike its predecessors, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS does not divulge clues that misdirect audiences. And while that admittedly works wonders on the ambiguity of the film, the simplification takes the flair out of what makes Christie novels so exciting.
I mustache you a question, Mr. Branagh: why bother with this remake?
Not comparing the film to its 1974 antecedent, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS actually manages to be somewhat interesting. The premise is compelling enough to warrant the audience’s curiosity—it just fails to sustain it until the end. Branagh attempts to offer up a deeper look into the enigmatic detective’s past by integrating scenes of Poirot mourning a beautiful woman in a picture frame. However, this unnecessarily complicates the film and instead takes away from the opportunity to further flesh out the other passengers on the train. The appeal of this film mostly stems from its all-star cast, but that quickly withers away and dies. For a film that solely relies on the star power of its actors to bring itself to life, it somehow forgets to give each enough screen time to make their roles memorable. It introduces each passenger well, but fails to maintain the individuality of all these characters, in effect making it seem as if they are all one and the same. Even with a lineup filled with great talent, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS still falls flat. Great acting can only be as good as the material and direction, and the film is barren at that.
Despite this, there were some enjoyable performances that helped me feel like I didn’t just entirely waste two hours of my time on this tasteless remake. Michelle Pfeiffer shines as the neurotic widow Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Pfeiffer sympathetically captures Hubbard’s fragile sanity and delivers the ending twist well. Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. compel as Mary Debenham and Dr. Arbuthnot, respectively, secretive lovers with a mysterious agenda (it seems like most passengers can be described in a similar manner). The train is filled with suspicious characters presented by acting chops hovering around adequate—but what the film lacks is giving its audience reasons to care about these characters. It focuses too much on Poirot, though Branagh does deliver his character plausibly and somewhat engagingly.
The enticing cast is really not enough to sustain interest in the film
Coming out of the movie theatre kind of felt like waking up from a really weird dream—remembering a lot of appealing visuals, but for some strange reason, having no recollection of any compelling storyline or plot point. (Though some shots were really strange and distancing—like the few extended aerial takes of the passengers as they move through the train). The film plays with the common expectation for a murder-mystery to have one main culprit—to have one moment when all the clues line up, the motives come into light, and the murderer reveals himself or herself. Perhaps there was help from a partner or group, but the crime is rarely ever committed by all those suspected. It’s a clever twist, but one that ends up feeling too contrived and unrealistic. Remember, the appeal of Christie’s novels resides in her rhetoric and ability to encapsulate readers in her enchanting, thrilling worlds, so the unrealistic endings rarely seem forced. Understandably, it is extremely difficult to translate that into film, but this remake sadly fails to try any other means to enthrall audiences. It lost a lot of the wonder the original had, and is simply not up to par on a stylistic level. I got on board MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS expecting at least some kind of entertainment, but along the way, the film just derailed and crashed.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend