With its classic style, striking ensemble, and lack of action-heavy set pieces, Murder on the Orient Express may be a little too refined for modern audiences versed in the ways of today’s distraction-centric filmmaking where bigger and louder equals better.
Despite the film being void of any staple action moment, Orient Express still delivers on thrills and intrigue as the titular murder proves investing enough to allow its audience plenty to digest throughout each dialogue-driven sequence.
Having proven his worth at adapting some of Shakespeare’s finest work with such features as Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996), it stands to reason that Kenneth Branagh would align himself with the catalogue of another respected writer such as Agatha Christie, and as both director and lead actor (screen writing duties fall to Logan scribe Michael Green) he wholly embraces the story’s aesthetic both thematically and characteristically.
With his overstated moustache and delightful Belgian accent, Branagh is clearly enjoying himself as the self-proclaimed “greatest detective that ever lived” Hercule Poirot, and from the moment he appears on-screen it’s evident how invested in this character Branagh is; the film’s final moments suggest further explorations should it earn the success it deserves.
A case of being in the right place at the wrong time (or right time given his penchant for solving crimes), Poirot’s self-imposed break from the investigative field is short-lived when his stay aboard the luxurious long distance passenger train the Orient Express becomes his work place when a passenger is slain in the middle of the night; Johnny Depp‘s lecherous gangster Edward Ratchett earns bragging rights as the film’s sole victim.
Given the dozen other passengers on board it won’t be an easy task for Poirot to solve Ratchett’s murder, especially as each potential suspect slowly reveal their own plausible motive, but what fun would it be if something so sinister was so easily solved? But in highlighting one of Branagh’s greatest strengths in his ability to lure top-tier talent to board this train sadly also exposes one of the screenplay’s weaknesses in that there’s perhaps a few too many cooks in the kitchen, leaving certain characters unable to make much of an impression beyond their recognisable appearance; Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, and Derek Jacobi some of the examples of fine performances being lost in the crowd.
Though even with a committed Branagh, and wonderful work from the lovely Daisy Ridley as a guarded governess, and Judi Dench as a scowling Princess, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer who ultimately outshines them all. The moment she appears on screen she is as luminous as one expects, and though her character initially appears as a flirty, almost needy type (one that in the hands of another actress could be insufferable), the nuances Pfeiffer injects slowly reveal a woman hiding more than she leads on. With this and her stand-out turn in mother!, Pfeiffer has truly made 2017 her year, and if there’s anything to take away from Orient Express, it’s that it’s a far better film because of her involvement.
With intricate overheads shots and a theatrical flair in his set-ups, Branagh does all he can to make the visuals of the film their own character due to its lack of multiple locations. The train is a dazzling creation in itself, and though there is the occasional CGI-enhanced assistance bestowed upon the vessel, there’s a charm in Branagh’s insistence on injecting the film with as much practicality as possible.
The essence of both Poirot and Christie are beautifully captured here, and Branagh earns the right of praise for delivering a modern day blockbuster that revels in rejecting the standard of what that constitutes. If this is the quality of work he is able to produce on his first attempt with Christie’s material, then Branagh quite possibly has the next great franchise in his clearly capable hands.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Murder on the Orient Express is in cinemas now.