Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is, perhaps, one of the greatest whodunits in literary history. And the story, which has been adapted numerous times over the years, bounds onto the screen once more in it’s most vibrant and stylish outing yet.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, whose penchant for classic adaptations is glaring, this new take on the familiar story struggles under the weight of expectation and comes undone by the presumption that the audience are none the wiser. And while there will be many movie-goers unfamiliar with the story, it’s fair to assume that most of the people attracted to such a title will already be aware of its resolution.
So, given the complexity of the mystery presented, and the fact that the outcome is one of the most famous reveals of all time, Branagh’s only option was to present Christie’s story in a glorious fashion, with a heightened production design and a few cheeky tweaks here and there. The result is a visceral feast for the eyes with very little substance elsewhere… and possibly the most stupid moustache of all time.
Branagh leads the film as Christie’s most famous character, Inspector Hercule Poirot, and he is the umpteenth actor to play the Belgian detective. Past adaptations have seen the likes of David Suchet, Albert Finney, Alfred Molina, Ian Holm, Tony Randall and Orson Welles sporting the infamously eccentric moustache. Rather than adhering to the documented attributes of Poirot, Branagh chose to accentuate the ‘stache, only to end up looking like a muppet. It’s a horrible creation, which looks as fake as it does stupid, and when accompanied by an awful attempt at a Belgian accent, his delivery becomes a needless parody.
The remaining cast, who make up the entire passenger list of the Orient Express, include Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad and Willem Dafoe, amongst others. It is a remarkable ensemble to be sure, and yet they are given so little to do and take up very little screen time individually. For what it’s worth, they are all very good and I give particular praise to Derek Jacobi and Daisy Ridley, who make use of their time without becoming caricatures.
The film’s saving grace is its wonderful production design, which features a full-scale train, set against stunning snow-swept alps. Shot on 65mm and using a combination of practical effects, miniatures, hand-crafted landscapes and CGI, the story unfolds in an absorbing environment that – at least – gives the viewer something spectacular to look at. The camera sweeps across the locomotive as it chugs its way through mountains and over bridges, and the remoteness of the story is presented well. The splendour of the production recalls some of Branagh’s previous work, most notably his eye-popping textures in Frankenstein (1994) and Cinderella (2015), and yet with his bloody awful facial hair (yes, I’ll mention it one more time) my mind was dragged – kicking and screaming – back to his unfortunate turn in Wild Wild West. As such, it is a shame that the unfolding story inside the carriage feels so uninspired and forced. What should be a legitimate murder mystery feels more like a farce, and Branagh’s proven gift for classic adaptations ought to have promised a much more robust and enthralling tale.
Talks of a sequel to Murder on the Orient Express are already underway and a follow-up is alluded to towards the end of the film, and despite my disliking of this entry I would be more than willing to approach another one with open arms. If the quality of production-value were to be maintained, Poirot’s character toned down, and the dialogue less kitschy… we just might have a rejuvenated franchise on our hands.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆