"My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world."
I think is says a lot about the timeless nature of Agatha Christie’s writing that such a never ending stream of adaptations and interpretations find their way onto stage, television and cinema. One would think that when murder mysteries become so popular that the once innovative ending turns into an adopted cliché it might spoil the effectiveness of it. Yet here we are with Sir Kenneth Branagh not only starring as Christie’s most famous character, but also directing this adaptation of her most famous novel.
In 1930s Europe, famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) boards the Orient Express for a small break in between cases. One fellow passenger, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), implores Mr. Poirot to assist him while on the train as he fears for his well-being, though Poirot declines. The next morning, Ratchett is found stabbed to death. With the train halted due to an avalanche derailing the engine, and with the evidence and suspects piling up, Poirot finds himself diving into a case that could be his biggest yet.
It’s always difficult to review adaptations of widely praised texts. Am I suddenly going to be contrarian and criticise the plot of one of the best-selling mystery novels of all time? What makes an adaptation of this nature work is the nuance and deftness with which the director can convey these plot details and immerse the audience within this mystery we are so familiar with. It also has to feel refreshing and innovative in order to set itself apart from previous adaptations. In short, it’s much less about what is being told but rather how it’s being told.
I will say that Branagh’s version definitely looks the part. Filmed in 65mm film the movie does have a great richness and depth of feel on a visual level. Save for some awkward CGI shots that don’t look at all convincing, the actual costume design, set pieces and overall look of the movie are wonderful. It helps to create this highly authentic atmosphere that helped the movie feel less like a group of celebrities re-enacting a book they all like in favour of a genuine attempt at adapting it. It also helps that those celebrities in question are highly talented actors that each embody their character very well. They each instil a good sense of uniqueness to their role and make for a memorable assortment.
The giant cast does struggle a bit for adequate screentime, not just because I wanted to see more of certain talents but also because the movie occasionally struggles to fit them into the picture so as to make it feel like a level playing field. My investment in the mystery depends on how greatly I believe that any of the suspects could have done it, but when certain characters start to feel short changed I start to mentally rule them out and feel less enthralled. Branagh does do a terrific job of introducing each character but as more exposition is required to make the plot move forward the film can’t help but feel a tad repetitive. His method of exploring each character starts to repeat itself and slowly grinds the pacing to standstill.
There is a great sense of energy to proceedings as Branagh really gives the story a true cinematic edge. Despite being confined to the limited space of a train carriage, under Branagh’s direction the visual style of the movie is able to feel ever moving and always dynamic. Though his methods of telling the story start to repeat themselves, they are still impressive to look at. In the same way that Branagh lent a grandiose aspect to the first ‘Thor’ movie that hasn’t been equalled by its successor, he does the same with ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by making it a pleasing movie to look at.
I will also give the movie credit for trying to make Poirot into a more interesting character within the context of the story. Putting aside the history of the character which Christie built up and developed over the course of several books means that you risk making the character feel purely like a vessel as opposed to any kind of development that would make the audience feel as if they have actually undergone a worthwhile journey. Though Branagh’s performance is a tad eccentric, largely due to an uneven accent and frankly ridiculous moustache, compared to his co-stars more nuanced take (which is saying a lot considering one of those co-stars is Johnny Depp) his scenery chewing his certainly entertaining as well as engaging. Poirot is seen as a character whose genius acts as a burden rather than something he can revel in. He makes it clear that the Belgian detective is weighed down by the fact that tragedy seems to follow him wherever he goes. He does have a point considering that the man can’t even take a train journey without falling into a murder mystery.
Though there are some very noticeable flaws, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is a solidly made and mostly entertaining adaptation.