Review: Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie. The name brings to mind images of murder and mystery like few others. The name of Kenneth Branagh recalls images of opulent period pieces, featuring sweeping cinematography and heightened, forceful performances. With that in mind it only makes sense that after years of adapting the works of William Shakespeare, he would make his way to Christie, a household name on nearly the same level as The Bard. His latest, an adaptation of her 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic Branagh picture from its rich highs to its disappointing lows.
Right off the bat, Branagh’s unique sensibilities are on display as this is gorgeous picture with an overt visual flair. Shot in 70mm, like the recent Dunkirk and The Hateful Eight before it, Orient Express has a clarity that's hard to come by in big budget cinema these days. Whereas Christopher Nolan used the format to place you on the battlefield of World War II, Branagh's use is more akin to Tarantino’s picture in that it's mostly in enclosed spaces and the wide view is used to highlight tiny details that would otherwise be missed. Everything from the color palette to his choice to film through panes of glass is used to enhance a mystery that many audiences will be familiar with going in, even if they, like myself, are unaware of the various twists and turns the story takes.
Much like Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation which starred Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, and basically every other big star of the day, Branagh's cast is equally stacked, being one of the main draws of this version. An all-star ensemble is a huge selling point and Orient Express is no exception. Branagh himself stars as world famous detective Hercules Poirot, a wildly eccentric man with more ridiculous quirks than you can count. His performance is both assured and lived in, with an air of confidence that holds true to most of Branagh's performances throughout his career. The rest of the cast features some of the best heavy hitter character actors of the last twenty years, with Michelle Pfeiffer being the standout here. Equal parts hilarious and mysterious, her Ms. Hubbard loves to talk almost as much as Poirot, bringing a charm that's more than welcome. Between Orient Express and the recent mother! it's great to have this titan of the screen back again with a regularity.
The cast also includes some pleasant surprises in the form of Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad. Having only been familiar with Ridley's work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was a nice change of pace to see her without a lightsaber in her hand and instead armed with a terrific supporting performance. Her warmth is palpable and I'd be more than pleased to follow her career going forward if she continues to show such range. The same goes for Gad, which came as a shock, as I had only been familiar with his work in Disney musicals. His MacQueen is a slippery sort with a shady past and an even shadier employer, the interrogation scene between him and Branagh is a showstopper, with both actors going for each other's throats and matching each other at every turn.
Speaking of his shady employer, that brings us to the current bane of most audiences, Johnny Depp. Dogged by many due to the offences of his personal life and some unfortunate career choices (Mortdecai, both Alice in Wonderland films) it's rare that he gives a memorable turn these days without ten pounds of makeup or a ridiculous costume. Written off by most as a joke these days, and personally I can't blame them, Depp is still able to give a good performance when the occasion calls for it. He plays Edward Ratchett, a dirty criminal and scoundrel of a man, perhaps reaching into meta territory. That said, he really is great here, with some terrific line readings and a swagger that's hard to beat. Orient Express is also one of the few times in recent years that Depp shows his age. Of course make-up is still present, but here he actually looks his 54 years, the rare glimpse of the actor as he truly looks, without the silly pirate costume we've all grown accustomed to seeing him in.
All these positives aside, Orient Express does have issues, mostly with the screenplay and pacing. There are a few tracts of the second act that are bereft of Patrick Doyle’s capable score that really drag down the proceedings with some rather dull interrogations by Poirot. It's a shame too, as at almost every other point the picture runs at an overly smooth pace. Other issues arise during the final act with a climax that goes against Poirot’s virtuous nature. What could've been a homerun turns out to just be a respectable triple as Branagh is unfortunately unable to stick the landing here.
Murder on the Orient Express is an entertaining and luscious Whodunnit with a top tier cast and some surprising visual flair. Fans of Agatha Christie will find themselves with a serviceable adaptation of one of her most famous mysteries even if Poirot fans might be letdown with this presentation of the iconic character. Kenneth Branagh devotees however will find a lot to love here as his style is all over this thing, recalling the visual majesty of his Hamlet on occasion. It may be a flawed movie, but Orient Express should garner your attention thanks to the terrific cast and performances on display. So book your passage on the Orient Express and take the ride, you'll find a lot to enjoy.