The search for a murderer on board has a group of strangers on the edge of their seats, in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, the film takes place in 1930s Europe, with famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) boarding the legendary Orient Express for a small break in between cases. While on board, he meets an interesting assortment of characters. 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 respectfully declines. The next morning, Ratchett is found stabbed to death. With the train halted due to snow build up on the tracks, and with the evidence and suspects piling up, Poirot finds himself diving into a case that could be his biggest and most mind-bending yet. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is directed by Kennth Branagh, and is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.
Kenneth Branagh’s modern day adaptation of this legendary crime detective novel offers a dual respect of the past and present that brings to life a special hybrid of sorts for ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. While this was a story that was written over eighty years ago, there’s plenty of artistic merit and expression of modern mastery that instills life into this third live action adaptation, holding its place amongst the vast collection of today’s whodunnits? that establish little in the way of detective procedurals. This film to me was not only a character piece in the eyes of a world renowned detective, but also a thought-provoking narrative that does beg the question if murder is ever acceptable in the most avenging of ways possible. It certainly isn’t an easy thing to cast a near two hour plot in one claustrophobic train-car, but Branagh and his talented cast spin the gears of the wheels , opening up this one setting play in the most elaborate of ways that constantly elevates the tension with each passing clue of development that poisons the air like the swanky soap operas of yesterday that we just can’t get enough of.
This is first and foremost an ensemble piece, garnering with it a collection of top name billers to add prestige to its ages old formula. Branagh pulls double duty here like the few times that he has before, and his command and essence over the character of Poirot proves that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. As this experienced detective, Branagh breathes in a quirky, yet distinguished operational aspect to his madness, establishing why he is the name that everyone turns to in the longest of longshots. Aside from Branagh, I also enjoyed the performances of Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and Willam Dafoe as suspects aboard this train. There is a big chance that the screenwriters take in the choice to not approaching these characters as anything more than one-dimensional suspects with very little exposition or screen time dedicated to their presence, but I feel that it pays off in spades because we are meeting these characters in the same way Poirot is; as questionable suspects, so I feel that to know too much would render their mysteries silent. Nobody is ever out of place or underwhelming in their displays, and even the brief work of Johnny Depp and Judy Dench prove that no role is too small in getting across the bigger point.
While this isn’t the widest example of free-range storytelling, the film’s investigation into this mystery offers plenty of meat to chew on in keeping the audience at bay. To me, this is a film that definitely has a better second half than first, and I say that because the opening minutes are at times a bit of a chore to get through, with forced humor of the Inspector Clouseau kind being inserted. It isn’t until about twenty minutes into the movie when we’re finally aboard this elegant train that is only one day from spinning out of control. Thankfully, the film does mature along with the subject matter that it encounters, leading to second and third acts in the film that strap on gloves to get ready for to get the hands dirty. One of my only problems with this story that dates back to its literary origin, is that once we find out the one coincidence that links these people together, the answer becomes apparently obvious in where the answer is heading. This to me happens a little bit early, leaving the remaining twenty minutes of film to soak in that question of murder that I asked in this writing earlier. The ending is satisfying, but it does so in a way that could’ve twisted the set-ups differently to present this as something different for the people who have already read or seen any of the two other movie adaptations.
The ending is something that I feel will be divisive amongst audiences, but I myself felt that it was just fine considering this is my fourth engagement with these characters and plot. Knowing this story once will kind of diminish in cliffhanging circumstance what kind of returns that you will get from something that offers very few changes. If you’re seeing this story for the first time in your life, then ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ version 2017 should steer you in the right direction for thrills and seedy developments that will constantly keep you guessing. To that degree, I share an air of jealousy for this being someone’s first dive into this plot, as I feel Branagh’s touch is no doubt the quit-essential precedent for a film in this series before or after this newest chapter. Like any human detective plot with honesty, the film ends without answering all of the questions, but as is life for motives that constantly keep us guessing.
One aspect that definitely should not be understated is in the gorgeous overall cinematography that Haris Zambarloukos displays with prestige in class. This is the Titanic of rolling trains, so everything from the elegant displays of crystal silverware and cozy surroundings does wonder in setting the stage fruitfully for this limited opportunity to tag along. In addition to this, Haris and Kenneth wow us with some intoxicating establishing shots of the many parallel weather patterns and scenery that always gives us something jaw-dropping to gaze at. But to prove that he isn’t just an actor, Branagh knows precisely where to point the camera, guiding us through the many train-cars effortlessly in manipulated one take long-shots that are meant to display the immensity of this setting and mystery that at the start feel completely wide open, but are later chopped down ruthlessly, relaying that the answer is getting closer and closer to the culprit. These aspects alone remind us the rare gifts that remakes can grant us; breathtaking views, luxurious tastes, and puppeteering behind the camera that can do so much with only so little.
THE VERDICT – Kenneth Branagh offers an entertaining upgrade on nearly every aspect of this old-fashioned murder mystery, with enough bends and curves to keep this a bumpy ride frequently. While the overall mystery becomes surrounded with a cloud of convolution, the touch of craft filmmaking involving scene-stealing camera work, overrides those problems, offering a pleasant taste of a golden age of Hollywood production where this train departed from. In lesser hands, this film collapses on its tracks, but the double duty of Branagh as the captain provides enough coal in the engine to power us through.