The newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit novel, Murder on the Orient Express, wishes it was a film from an older, simpler time, when a central mystery as lacking as the one it presents would have likely been enough to satisfy its viewers. But in 2017, with there being a large catalog of murder-mystery films that offer grander puzzles of suspense with far superior payoffs, this lavishly produced remake loses steam long before it arrives at its underwhelming destination. The film isn’t without any merit, as its graceful cinematography highlights gorgeous period-appropriate set and costume design, and the ensemble cast of both old and new A-listers (including Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe) do formidable work, even with the lackluster material they’ve been handed. Ultimately, though, director Kenneth Branagh’s attempt at remaking this nearly century-old story is absent of any fresh additions or twists, leaving its savvier viewers with an unsatisfying mystery to solve.
Branagh also serves as the story’s mustached lead and famed hero detective, Hercule Poirot. In the winter of 1934, Poirot boards the Orient Express from Istanbul on his way home to help solve yet another case, hoping that the short train ride itself will provide some sort of relaxation. But, of course, it’s never that simple. Poirot becomes sidetracked when a particularly shady passenger aboard the train, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), asks to buy his protection after receiving an increasingly alarming amount of threatening letters. Poirot refuses, and the following morning, awakens to find that Ratchett has been brutally murdered in his sleep only a few cabins down, with 12 erratic stab wounds and minimal evidence hampering his insight on who done it. Along with this, an avalanche has resulted in the train’s derailing, stranding its anxious passengers while they wait upon a rescue crew.
From here, the film goes through the regular motions as Poirot collects clues and interrogates the train’s guests. But Murder on the Orient Express primarily suffers in this aspect, especially due to its distinct lack of compelling hints and foreshadowing. This is a vital feature of the genre — one that allows its most enthralled and enthusiastic audience members to play right alongside the detective and build their own case as to who they believe the killer may be. Here, the limited script restricts this freedom, and while I had my own suspicions during the proceedings, it’s not as if I had much to go on regarding a majority of the dozen or so characters here (yet another failure of the film). We see only snapshots of many of the suspects, leaving but a small number that soak up any meaningful screen time.
A film of this ilk truly lives and dies on its reveal of the truth, and Murder on the Orient Express conceals an intriguing enough twist that’s completely laid out in its closing moments. But while Branagh maximizes his extravagance in playing Poirot in this moment, and I hadn’t actually seen this twist coming, I couldn’t get on board with the finale (following the screening, my girlfriend noted the sour look on my face during this part). The scene is gorgeously presented, but I found Poirot’s disclosure of the truth to not only be undercooked, but honestly so left-field that it didn’t feel earned through the preceding 100 minutes (I’m reading now that the film runs just under two hours, which is surprising to me since it felt much longer). There’s also a flashback during this sequence that fully displays the murder, but it’s so terribly staged that it is nearly laughable in the moment, further detracting from the reveal’s impact.
I’m sure you can already tell that I’m not a big fan of this adaptation, although I’m not entirely certain that it’s the fault of the director or screenwriter Michael Green or, well, anyone else involved in the making of this film. Rather, with all the clues laid out in front of me, my suspicion is that perhaps Agatha Christie’s tale simply doesn’t hold up to today’s standards. Branagh’s vision for Murder on the Orient Express has everything it needs to be a success — including a big budget, grand visuals, and a superb cast — and yet its most glaring issues lie in the aging source material that holds it back from being something much greater.
2.5 stars out of 5
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor