Murder on the Orient Express movie review: strangers on a train

MaryAnn’s quick take: Doubly dated, lacking in humor and subtext, its impressive cast deliberately underutilized, this is little more than an exercise in gorgeous production design.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): saw no need for another production
I can’t recall if I’ve read the source material (I might have as a teenager in my classic-mystery phase, but if so, clearly it didn’t stick)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Here’s the biggest mystery of director and star Kenneth Branagh’s opulent period mounting of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel: Why? Who was clamoring for yet another retelling of a story that has been told onscreen — both the big and small screens — several times already, and as recently as 2010 in the beloved television series starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot? Why bother to tell this story again at all unless there is something fresh to say with it, something that speaks to audiences today?

This ain’t Hamlet, an enduring consideration of humanity, as Branagh would well know: there’s nothing inherently timeless about Christie’s story. So here’s the biggest irony of Branagh’s film… indeed, an accidental irony in a film almost entirely lacking in humor, self-awareness, or subtext: it’s something of a mixed blessing that almost no attempt has been made to update the tale for modern sensibilities. Because there isn’t any obvious room for that. (A black actor, Leslie Odom Jr., has been cast in what would have originally been a role for a white man, and that’s great, but this doesn’t impact the story in the least.) And the less obvious route to take — such as, perhaps, a meta riff on the one aspect of this particular mystery that perhaps accounts for its fame — would result in a very different sort of movie than, clearly, Branagh (Cinderella, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) wanted to make.

Murder on the Orient Express Johnny Depp
“Actually, my contract does specific ‘No green M&Ms in my trailer’…”

But still: what we’ve ended up with here is a film that feels doubly dated. For one, it adheres far too slavishly to an almost century-old novel that was very much of its time. For another, it harkens back to an age of entertainment that is over. When director Sidney Lumet gave us his adaptation of Orient Express in 1974, the gathering of Hollywood luminaries that was his cast — including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Albert Finney, and other huge names of the day — would have felt like an event, something not to be missed. In our era of 24/7 on-demand movies and prestige television and endless hot- and cold-running celebrity news and gossip, it just feels like one more pile-on. Our problem today is too many famous faces in our faces all the time, not too few.

Poirot’s puzzle-solving leaps from clue to conclusion with nary any detectiving in between.

Christie’s fiction was never strong on character, and that is only amplified here: as the suspects (and one of them the victim) in a murder on the moving high-speed luxury train The Orient Express, en route from Istanbul to Calais, the impressive cast cannot help but be underutilized; they’re mostly just posing in their gorgeous 1930s costumes. And, to be fair, the likes of Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!, Dark Shadows), Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Willem Dafoe (The Great Wall, John Wick), Penelope Cruz (The Brothers Grimsby, Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), etc, do look amazing… but a Vanity Fair themed fashion shoot does not a satisfying movie make. The nature of the mystery itself demands that they be underwritten, that we don’t get to know them well; their secrets cannot be explored, at least not without some very clever writing that is able to balance the mystery of them while also fleshing them out. Unfortunately, screenwriter Michael Green has been making quite a name for himself playing in other writers’ sandboxes and bringing nothing of his own to the game: he’s been party to the disappointing retreads that are Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant (though he is also one of several credited screenwriters on the wonderful Logan). Branagh struggles to get past the ghost of David Suchet — a fabulous moustache isn’t enough — and he’s not helped by the script, either, which (among other problems with this character) gives the detective an outrageously dramatic moment at the end of the film that he doesn’t earn.

Murder on the Orient Express Kenneth Branagh Daisy Ridley
“Have no fear, mademoiselle, my moustache is train-ed not to attack.”

Without engaging characters — they all remain strangers to us — we’re left with Poirot’s puzzle-solving, which here leaps from clue to conclusion with nary any detectiving in between. As a procedural, which is all Orient Express has apart from its exercise in period production design, there’s little pleasure to be found in Poirot’s investigation because we cannot follow his train of thought (no pun intended). By the time it all comes gushing out in the “let me tell you why I’ve asked you all here” finale, the solution to the mystery swings wildly from feeling preposterous to feeling way too pat. And on top of all that lack of satisfaction, the central motivation for the murder — both in the novel and here — revolves around a fictionalized version of a real-life notorious incident of the early 1930s that would have been fresh to Christie’s readers and likely would have felt shocking and even deliciously exploitative. For us, even those who are aware of what is being referenced (which won’t be everyone), it does nothing of the sort. It has no power to move us.

In the end, then, this Murder on the Orient Express is nothing more than a pretty box of random trinkets, lovely to look at yet all but meaningless. It’s a sad cinematic derailment.

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Tue, Nov 07, 2017 1:37am
Tue, Nov 07, 2017 4:26pm

This is pretty much what I expected, but the picture of Branagh’s Poirot seals its doom. He looks ridiculous. There have been many non-canon representations of Poirot, and they all miss a salient point – that his appearance is part of how the other characters respond to him. (It’s not just that he’s odd-looking, it’s *how* he’s odd-looking. His behavior likewise, but having not seen the movie I don’t know if that’s also off.)

I am a devoted Agatha Christie fan, and the desire to fancy up her stories just shows that (most) producers have no idea how the characters achieve their impact. They want to be creative and put their own stamp on their work, but too many of them have thought that they know better than an author whose works have been acclaimed worldwide for decades.

Paul Griggs
Paul Griggs
Sat, Nov 11, 2017 6:02am

I’m a huge Poirot and Christie fan and I dreaded seeing this version for fear of being disappointed. If you like the precisely accurate Suchet characterization, you probably won’t like how Branagh creates a slightly different Poirot. The look and feel of this movie was spot on and amazing. The fine ensemble of actors does an amazing job of getting their hooks into you in a very short time. This was far better a version than the dreadful 1974 “classic” which always struck me as equivalent to a made for TV movie and more engaging than Suchet’s authentic to the book version. I was pleasantly surprised by this movie!

Mon, Nov 13, 2017 7:22pm

I just saw this yesterday. I love the Lumet version from the ’70s and vaguely remember the book (which I read about 35 years ago), but that said, I really liked this film. It looked gorgeous, and I thought that many of the performances matched the impact of the Lumet cast. I particularly enjoyed Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom, Jr., as well as liking the small roles of both Derek Jacobi (loved his accent, btw) and Willem Dafoe. I’m not very familiar with Josh Gad’s prior work, but I liked his take on Ratchitt’s assistant. Depp and Branagh were the two I was leery about going in, but I rather liked Depp’s sleaze and thought that Branagh was rather magnificent.

Pontus Sten
Pontus Sten
Wed, Jan 24, 2018 1:29pm

I can´t understand why Kenneth Branagh keeps casting himself. He is a horrible actor and movies that could have been enjoyable becomes boring and easy forgetable because of his lack of charisma and acting skills.