Film Review

Murder on the Orient Express safely stays on the rails as it toys with classic character

By Leigh Monson

   Is it just me, or do we not really need a new rendition of Murder on the Orient Express?
   I mean, of course, all film is technically unnecessary as a medium of entertainment, but what exactly is the impetus to revisit Agatha Christie's most famous story on the big screen in the year 2017? The mystery's conclusion isn't going to change, and the necessity of such a large cast of characters means that we aren't going to devote much a limited screenplay to exploring their particular nuances. So what's the point?
   Apparently the answer this time around is to explore director and star Kenneth Branagh's performance of the detective Hercule Poirot, and the result is a technically proficient if not a bit tired reinterpretation.
   If you somehow aren't already familiar with Murder on the Orient Express, the plot is relatively simple. On a train travelling across Europe, one of the guests (played by Johnny Depp, affecting an ostentatious coat that serves the same function as an acting aid usually filled for Depp by his hats) is murdered upon the train as it is halted in an avalanche. With about a dozen suspects on the train and, coincidentally, the world's greatest detective Hercule Poirot on board, Poirot seeks to discover just which of these passengers may have wanted to kill the victim, only to discover a surprising number of seemingly coincidental connections between the victim and each passenger.
   Now, if you wanted to watch a reasonably effective exercise in early twentieth-century lavish set design populated by character performances by an ensemble of known talent, then Murder on the Orient Express is likely to scratch that itch. The VIPs include Judi Dench, Willen Dafoe, Michelle Pfieffer, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr., but Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, and others also acquit themselves nicely if not conventionally. There is an admirable effort by the screenplay to update some of the racial and gender sensibilities of the original work that would today feel dated, but at its core this is still a story where we watch Poirot interview each of these characters in turn, only to catch them in a lie, then rinse and repeat until the ultimate truth comes to light. It's effective, though not necessarily as dynamic as one might expect from a big screen tentpole film.
   The biggest change this version brings to the screen is Branagh's Poirot, who chews the scenery as only Branagh can direct himself to do. Never mind that Poirot's mustache looks like a live squirrel moving around his face between shots, but Branagh revels in the opportunity to play a man with larger than life intellect. The problem with Branagh's interpretation is that it steers uncomfortably close to this decade's most tired interpretation of the detective: the supermind born of being neuro-atypical. Granted, Branagh's interpretation of Poirot is not quite so sociopathic as Benedict Cumberbatch's take on Sherlock Holmes, but he still carries all the uncomfortable baggage of implying that neurological difference equates to superhuman ability. It sucks the charm and likeability out of a character notoriously known for such, and not even Branagh's wild gesticulations can save that.
   Murder on the Orient Express is an adequately assembled film, but it doesn't quite establish itself as a unique enough entity to justify its own existence. Branagh clearly wants to make sequels, but perhaps he needs to figure out more to do with the character than don a silly bit of face fuzz.
3/5 stars