Murder on the Orient Express was certainly not my cup of tea. I do enjoy a good mystery movie, especially after seeing what director Gilles Paquet-Brenner managed to accomplish with Crooked House, another Agatha Christie adaptation. But Murder’s execution didn’t make the most out of a stellar ensemble cast and the many threads leading to a surprise ending in the final act. That being said, there are many reasons to watch Murder on the Orient Express.
The film starts in 1934 Jerusalem where Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), portrayed as a perfectionist sleuth detective, manages to solve the theft of a priceless relic, showboating his talents in front of the Wailing Wall and the public masses. While he’s set to enjoy a vacation right after, duty inevitably calls him to another case, and he must travel aboard the Orient Express to get to his destination. Luckily for the man, his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) runs the service, and getting a cabin wasn’t a difficult task.
Aboard the train, Poirot runs into an eclectic group of people aboard the carriage led by the likes of Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad. Each person is as peculiar as the Belgian Poirot, and when one of them is killed while the train hits a snag on a mountain rail pass, the detective’s brief respite is cut even shorter.
Even though the plot isn’t realized to its full potential, Branagh’s direction has to be appreciated for its efforts. We get wide scopes and pans of beautiful locations starting off with Jerusalem at first. Afterward, the primary vehicle for revealing the landscapes is the Orient Express, as it travels through cities and towns and across valley floors and snowy mountains. It is quite a sight to behold.
When it comes to the interiors, the camera doesn’t fail to capture the opulence of the train. Cleanly set dining tables, polished silverware, and pristine sets of plates and glasses. The beauty of the outdoors is matched indoors, and the slow camera movements manage to observe all of this.
The camera perspectives are also sound decisions. To help us gather a sense of space inside the train, we get symmetrical movements forward and back with characters laced around the edges of the screen to show how tightly constricted everyone and everything is. The same effect is created with aerial, birds’ eye views from atop as characters walk down the sleep quarter corridors, showing that two people surely can’t walk side by side. When Poirot and Bouc go into the dead person’s quarter’s, this viewpoint is perfect in showing the limited space and the possible items of interest strewn everywhere. Branagh and DP Haris Zambarloukos made some great choices to amplify the claustrophobic nature of the train while being careful to point out clues and hints to the murder.
When Poirot has sit-downs with the other characters to narrow down his suspect list, the choice of settings is also creatively striking. With some people, he interrogates them at the dead of night by lamp and candlelight, when most of the screen is shrouded in darkness. We get the feeling then that a certain character is being secretive, hiding something from our hero detective. With others, he chooses to question them during the day, sunlight beaming through to reveal everything in sight. There’s a scene where Poirot talks with a female character outside in the snow, a table and two chairs set up by the rail tracks as workers fix the broken train and path. The cleanliness of the image and choice of location, for everyone to see, instantly discounts the person from the audience’s suspect list. Opting to treat different characters to various interrogation settings while playing with the lighting, Branagh and his team set up a hierarchy of culpability, allowing us to have a range of emotional responses to each person.
With such a strong ensemble cast attached to the movie, it’s impossible to have all of them or any of them stand out in a prominent fashion within the running time. That is except for Branagh’s Poirot. He leads the pack in terms of quirks and odd behaviors. He wants two perfectly boiled and symmetrical-looking eggs. He wants people’s ties to be a certain way. He also wants people to cut the chit-chat and get right to it (nothing wrong with that).
This straightforward attitude yields some lively and interesting conversations. At a layover in Istanbul before boarding the train, Poirot meets Bouc for the first time, the gentleman having a female companion by his side. As if embodying Sherlock Holmes himself, Poirot correctly identifies the woman as a prostitute to her face, something no one at the scene is insulted by. And before he leaves, he’s also sure to kiss the good lady’s hand as a sign of his impeccable manners (you don’t know where that hand has been, Poirot). Poirot keeps the state of affairs relatively light and freshened consequently, and some of the supporting characters don’t disappoint either.
Willem Dafoe is a high-strung and racist Austrian. Michelle Pfeiffer is a ditsy divorcee with some kind of hots for Poirot. Judi Dench is an aging princess channeling grumpy cat. While none of them steals the show, they hold your attention when they’re on screen.
As I mentioned earlier, Poirot has a tendency to blurt out his observations and deductions to everyone. His dissection of the theft in Jerusalem is the first example, and this carries out later with the train murder and supporting characters.
When he meets Ridley’s Mary Debenham, for instance, he immediately identifies her title as Governess and that she’s coming from Baghdad. He flaunts his skills and talents to no end, much like the legendary Sherlock Holmes. For fans of the Baker Street sleuth, Murder should be an enjoyable watch to see if Poirot matches or surpasses Holmes in some regards (he doesn’t in my mind).
Final Act and Plot Twist
If you haven’t read the Agatha Christie novel released in 1934 or seen the 1974 movie directed by Sidney Lumet, the final act can be a real head turner. The plot is intended to thrive on misdirection and the inability of the audience, and Poirot for that matter, to pin down the murderer. Different pieces of evidence point to entirely divergent paths, making it impossible to say that a specific person committed the crime without a doubt.
The final act of the movie manages to tie all loose ends together, revealing quite an elaborate and intricate plot that is confounding and stretches the imagination to its limit. While the machinations may be tough to comprehend pragmatically, looking at events through the realm of emotional plausibility makes the revelations satisfying. It would have been a job well done if we were able to spend more time with the supporting characters to understand their motivations more fully, since we rarely get to spend time with them when Poirot isn’t around.
With some quirky and eccentric characters shot with a skilled-hand behind the camera, Murder on the Orient Express proves to be an exciting experience for people primarily interested in how a movie looks, as opposed to how it’ll make people feel. While there are admirable characters in the movie, not spending sufficient time with any of them and sticking mostly with the detective protagonist doesn’t make a strong case for its plot or characters. Personally, I couldn’t stomach Branagh’s heavy Belgian accent. The film is mostly eye candy, and if that’s what you’re into, have at it.
If you like mystery movies, check out our other reviews here.