Not to be confused with director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s mystery novel of the same name, which was also an all-star cast affair, Fox’s almost all-star Murder on the Orient Express is lesser than the sum of its parts. I’ll watch almost any movie with a train, especially a mystery that takes place on a train, and I’m an admirer of actor/director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Much Ado About Nothing, Cinderella), who plays the lead. The train’s my favorite part.
The cast is, with a few exceptions, good, in some cases very good. Like its stylish marketing campaign, Murder on the Orient Express is visually arresting, too, with the best scenes involving the train, its parts and its motion through the wintry mountains from Istanbul. I wanted longer takes, extended shots and a lot less artificial imagery than seems apparent. Other location scenes look fake. Once the lead detective, Hercule Poirot (Branagh, so good, too, in this year’s Dunkirk) and the passengers are on board and the locomotive’s in motion, the screen’s filled with midnight blue-tinged pictures, elegant details and interesting characters. Midway through, I wanted to book myself on a train through the Alps.
Oddly enough, the characters get in the way of the gorgeous setting. The film spends so much time setting up Poirot as the legendary detective that, as he boards the Orient Express, ready to rest and retire after solving a mystery in the Middle East, Murder on the Orient Express lays on the characters too fast, thick and without enough space between scenes. A key plot point comes in flashbacks which do not really match the movie. Every time this point returns, you resent it and just want to get back on the train. Characters sort of fade into oblivion. And the cast of characters, as anyone who knows this story knows, are foundational to solving the murder.
Poirot, drawn by writer Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) as the kind of hero Branagh loves to portray, with a bit too much fodder for possible sequels, talks about achieving balance, right and wrong and no in-between and the curse of seeing things as they should be. Branagh as Poirot is a pleasure to watch, laughing as he reads and offering insights on the ability to commit murder as a fundamental “fracture of the soul”. Following a storm, an avalanche and a derailment, he, too, gets sidetracked by a jumble of pocket scenes and flashbacks that feel nipped and tucked more than integrated.
“I do not like your face,” Poirot says in the movie’s best line at a certain point and he delivers it to a pivotal character that ought to fuel the movie’s moral theme but fails to make that impression. This is due less to the acting than to the writing and directing, as if the filmmakers of Murder on the Orient Express can’t exactly decide how to build and release suspense.
Judi Dench (Philomena, Chocolat, Victoria & Abdul) is exemplary as always as the arch princess and Olivia Colman is excellent as her German handmaiden. Johnny Depp’s (Pirates of the Caribbean, Public Enemies) at his best. Willem Dafoe (The English Patient) is very good. Derek Jacobi (Cinderella, Vicious) never gives a bad performance. Penelope Cruz is surprisingly good, too. The Star Wars actress, Daisy Ridley, and Michelle Pfeiffer, not so much (I can always see them acting). Overhead shots at a specific interval are interesting and well done and so is the climactic roundup of the mystery. That I notice these scenes, however, cuts both ways for Murder on the Orient Express, which is sometimes posh at the expense of the plot’s momentum.