by Emma Smith, Reporter
Murder on the Orient Express: come for the classic who-dun-it; stay for the meditation on the nature of justice. Director Kenneth Branagh tackles an Agatha Christie classic and manages the difficult task of doing something new with a story where much of his audience already knows the ending. Still while the film is overall enjoyable, it flounders a bit when it comes to pacing and some of the visual effects.
On his way to London, Detective Hercule Poirot finds himself amid a group of eccentric strangers on the luxurious Orient Express. On the second night of the journey, two disasters strike the train, an avalanche derails the train and one of the travelers is stabbed to death. While a crew works to free the train, Poirot races against time to identify the killer. Not an easy task when every occupant of the train has a secret.
The cast is truly impressive in the depth and breadth of their talent. Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Harry Potter)as Hercule Poirot is quite a large departure from previous incarnations the character, but while he doesn’t look like Christie’s book descriptions, he does a great job embodying Poirot’s idiosyncrasies. Josh Gad (Frozen, Beauty and the Beast) as Hector MacQueen and Judi Dench (James Bond) as Princess Dragomiroff have the two most emotionally affecting scenes. It is a pleasure to see such talent echo across two generations of actors. Tom Bateman (Da Vinci’s Demons) has a lighter but quite entertaining role as the hedonistic train director Bianchi.
The cast also includes Daisy Ridley (Star Wars) as Mary Debenham, Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton) as Dr. Arbuthnot, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (The Magnificent Seven 2016) as Biniamino Marquez, Derek Jacobi (Doctor Who) as Edward Henry Masterman, Marwan Kenzari (The Mummy 2017) as Pierre Michel, Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns) as Caroline Hubbard, Olivia Colman (Doctor Who) as Hildegarde Schmidt, and Willem Dafoe (The Boondocks Saints) as Gerhard Hardman. There are still weak spots in this cast, despite its number of starts. Johnny Depp’s Edward Ratchett is a bit overdrawn as the villian, Penelope Cruz is a little flat as the religious Pilar Estravados, and Lucy Boynton and Sergei Poluninas are too frenetic as the Count and Countess Andrenyi. It’s worth saying that it is unclear how much of these weaknesses belong to the individual actors and how much belong to the heavily stylized direction.
The film is set in the early 1930s, and the production design, art design, and costume departments take full advantage. Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne seems on the path to an Oscar nomination. Just try not to covet the slick suits and sleek gowns while you watch. From pocket watches to dressing gowns, everything is lovely. The details of the locations and interior sets are also impeccable, from the Wailing Wall to the first class sleeping cars. However, some of the wide shots of the train moving though the countryside and mountainside are a bit jarring. The visual affects make them look more like paintings than films, an unfortunate contrast to the sharply focused shots of the cast and train interiors. Also some of the dialogue feels rather anachronistic.
The film focuses more on the character interaction and philosophy than the mystery itself. It sets up an interesting contrast between Poirot’s worldview regarding criminals and the nature of the crime committed on the train. It also puts more focus o the motives of the suspects than on the physical clues. The focus on the nature of justice over classic mystery reveal is perhaps wise for such a famous story. Unfortunately it does make some of the scenes, particularly those of Poirot interviewing the suspects devoid of much urgency. The slow reveal of background information along with the number of players also means it is difficult to become emotionally involved with any of the characters.
Murder on the Orient Express is a beautiful but flawed entry into the mystery canon. For those willing to sit through slower pacing, the visual feast and thought-provoking narrative are worth the time.
ComicsOnline gives Murder on the Orient Express – 3.5 out of 5 disappearing Italian assassins.