Having seen Sydney Lumet’s faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” recently, I was worried my knowledge of the story and the solution to the mystery would taint my experience of watching Kenneth Branagh’s glossy star studded version. And for a while my concern was warranted. Branagh’s adaptation, which he co wrote with Michael Green, follows the source material very closely with few adjustments and it reaches the same conclusion.
However, to my surprise, that conclusion is still pretty damn impactful, not necessarily because of the murder itself but rather the profound effect said murder has on the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh). By the end, Poirot’s personal coda is altered; his strictly traditional notions of right and wrong are permanently ruffled. And he’s forced to see the world in a way he hadn’t before.
Unfortunately, getting to this point is a bit of a chore. While “Murder on the Orient Express” is never outright bad it’s consistently flat. The screenplay is stagey and telegraphed to a fault--draining the film of tension and urgency. Everything has to be spelled out for us, in lengthy monologues by the characters, (in which they spill potential motives) Poirot’s interrogations and flashbacks. Branagh’s oppressive theatrical style, combined with his faithfulness to the source material makes for a bland affair. A documentary featuring the actors from this movie playing one large game of Clue would be more exciting.
For the stylish and suspicious group of railroad travelers Branagh has assembled an impressive cast of old and new talent, including Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench among others. It’s a shame they aren’t given more to do. “Murder on the Orient Express” clocks in at an hour and fifty five minutes, a surprisingly brisk running time (given how many characters there are and the complexity of the mystery) that short changes its ensemble, hindering the characters from developing beyond a few scripted bullet points that may or may not connect them to the murder, bullet points that Poirot proceeds to spell out for us. In this regard, the mysterious Count and Countess (played by Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) suffer the most, as Poirot blandly explains their backstory right to their face.
The short runtime also disrupts the picture’s overall flow. The narrative unfolds hastily and messily; character backstories and motivations seem to come out of nowhere. The backstory involving an American Army Colonel and his young daughter, which turns out to be a very important piece of the puzzle, is dropped into the narrative in such a casual and clunky manner that it’s devoid of significance. A murder mystery as elaborate as this one needs time to unravel with ease. Too often it feels like Branagh is trying to get through his story as quickly as he can.
Visually, “Murder on the Orient Express” is pretty but also a little drab. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is polished and there are a handful of dynamic tracking shots but the CGI exterior shots outside the confines of the train (on a snowy mountain, in Istanbul, in Jerusalem) are downright atrocious. They look unfinished and make the movie feel even more flat. I guess the filmmakers spent their entire budget on the actors and fake mustaches.
For what it’s worth, Branagh is very good as Poirot, bringing the character’s many quirks and inflated sense of ego to life. He gets the funniest lines in the movie and he sells the hell out of Poirot’s change in perspective at the end. The rest of the actors do the best they can, with the exception of Depp and Josh Gad. Both men give overly strained dramatic performances that crumble like the very mountain that stops the train and kick starts our mystery.
Despite the life altering resolution, Branagh’s adaptation of “Orient” does little to justify its existence. You’re better off reading Christie’s novel or watching Lumet’s version.