Based on the novel by Agatha Christie and directed by star Kenneth Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express assembles a stellar cast to re-tell the classic tale. However, does the story work as well for modern audiences or is it too much of a throwback for them to care?
Kenneth Branagh plays Christie’s world-renowned detective, Hercule Poirot, in the story of strangers on a train and which of them may have committed a murder on board. There’s the shady businessman, Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his assistant (Josh Gad) and manservant (Derek Jacobi), the former governess (Daisy Ridley), the doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), the devout woman (Penelope Cruz), the professor (Willem Dafoe), the aging princess (Judi Dench), her attendant (Olivia Colman), the Count (Sergei Polunin) and Countess (Lucy Boynton), the husband-hunting American (Michelle Pfeiffer), and the rest. Who did the crime and why? That’s what Poirot needs to find out before the train makes its destination and the local police pin the crime on a convenient, but possibly innocent, suspect.
You’ll notice that aside from Poirot, I didn’t give many character names. That was by design. Much of this film’s appeal is due to the star power of the cast, not who they’re actually playing. Some of them get only the most cursory of character development, which is a shame, because this is a really great cast and many of them deserved more than they got. The production design is also very lavish—this is a beautiful looking film. Branagh does a mostly good job with his direction, but a few key scenes—including the solution of the crime—had some very odd staging. Without going into spoilers, let’s talk about that ending. I don’t profess to be an Agatha Christie expert, but in reading up on the novel, I know that the solution to the crime presented in the film is the same as the novel. Perhaps Christie handles it a bit better in the book, but I found the solution to be utterly ridiculous. It was unbelievable to me how the murder could have been perpetrated without anyone knowing when Poirot was in just the next cabin. I did like, however, how the clues pointed to almost everyone, so Poirot really has to work out the mystery.
I thought Branagh did a nice job as Poirot—his moustache is certainly something that needs to be seen to be believed. The rest of the cast is equally good with the little screen time they have throughout. Standouts include Pfeiffer, Ridley, and Gad.
Overall, Murder on the Orient Express is a fine and safe, old fashioned detective tale. The cast is great and the film itself is great to look at. However, there’s no real need to rush out to see this one. It’s good—Christie devotees may take issue with some aspects—but aside from the cast and money sunk into it, nothing else really sticks out about it. There is no one thing that compels me to rave about it. It’s just fine.