RELEASE DATE: November 10, 2017
DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA RATING: PG-13
RUNTIME: 114 minutes
My first clue was the mustache. The new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express gives Hercule Poirot absurd facial hair, waxed and curled with an other-worldly strictness. Meticulously kept, it’s as crisp and obvious a detail as the rest of the movie’s production value – perfect displays of luxurious interior design, impeccably colorful costumes, and gorgeous, elaborate setpieces. The film’s first visual priority is to look as expensive and vibrant as possible.
This particular approach – to fill the frame with as much stuff as possible at any given moment – extends to the quality of the performances and the unraveling of the script. Kenneth Branagh, both directing and starring as the iconic Belgian sleuth, establishes an Ideology of More from the get-go. On one hand, you can’t fault him: this is a movie about a murder aboard a luxury European locomotive in the early 20th century. And since a good deal of the audience already knows whodunit, you may as well have some fun on the way there. But in a quest to keep things lively, the film sacrifices nuance for splashiness, and proper structuring for just hitting the beats.
Like previous adaptations, this Murder on the Orient Express attracts us because of its cavalcade of stars. Branagh is the lead, and Johnny Depp plays Samuel Ratchett, the mysterious tycoon who is the victim of the titular killing. The suspected is everyone else on the train, ranging from the conductor (Marwan Kenzari), to the eccentric baker’s dozen of passengers, which includes an American socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer), a member of a royal family (Judi Dench), and Ratchett’s secretary (Josh Gad), to name a few. Poirot squares up the group, and soon realizes that many of them are concealing information about their pasts, and this deceit will lead him to a stunning conclusion.
It’s likely that those who go into this movie not knowing anything about the story will enjoy it the most. Michael Green’s screenplay makes sure to faithfully adapt the thrust of the Agatha Christie novel, and so the great twist which caps everything off is handled with care and efficiency. But the plot is treated as just that – a handful of pieces which lead to an ending – with the remainder occupied by window dressing and exposition. Extensive black-and-white flashback scenes show us past events, usually concurrent with someone narrating it. Information is gleaned from bland two-handers. That the movie clocks in at under two hours seems like a twist of fate, and the buildup is uneven: enormous chunks of the final act get squeezed into tight quarters.
But Branagh has fun toying with flourishes and gestures, both behind the camera and in front of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a beautiful movie. Lengthy tracking shots and pans showing off the impeccable production credits, as Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography tunes into extravagance. The ensemble cast lands somewhere between sincere drama and cane-twirling excess. If they leaned more into the latter, and tilted the balance of the film into a comic mystery, the instantaneous entertainment value would have gone up, and the flatness of the mystery’s execution less of a concern. Yet moving into farce would bring about another set of issues, which the straightforward resolution does not lend itself to fixing.
Murder on the Orient Express winds up on that mid-level ground: mixing vivid visuals with a obligated script, quick line readings with sluggish storytelling, and a crackerjack caper with an uninspired mood. The movie ends on a sequel hook, and considering the wealth of Poirot stories which have been written, it would be very possible. We may not mind the idea of spending another couple of hours in the presence of Branagh’s take on the character, considering that this installment is far from being torturous or broken. But where can it go from here? Moving on would suggest an inertia to the proceedings, and it’s missing from this take.