Released this weekend was “Murder on the Orient Express” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. The adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel is both visually pleasing and a star-studded affair with the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench gracing the screen. With a high enough budget to make many superheroes envious, one would expect a mind-blowing spectacle with enough visual effects to make your head spin. While the cinematography is beautiful and the period production design elegant, the film is reminiscent of a star who wears a black dress to the Oscars. She won’t make the best-dressed list, but played it safe enough to not get laughed off the red carpet either. “Orient Express” is so safe, in fact, that viewers are going to have a tough time coming up with anything negative to say about the film, but not many are going to walk away truly wowed either.
The magnificently mustachioed Hercule Poirot, played by Kenneth Branagh, is a masterful detective who has a natural knack for spotting the world’s imperfections. We open on a scene, not existing in Christie’s novel, full of wonderfully delicious exposition as Poirot tries to find the perfect pair of eggs at his breakfast table. Much to his chagrin, no pair in the city of Jerusalem is to his liking. He blames the chicken. With an empty belly, he heads off to solve a crime at the Wailing Wall, stopping a religious riot from ensuing. With the culprit caught, Poirot decides that it is time for a little rest and relaxation in Britain.
But as luck would have it, a new case requires his immediate attention and his friend books him a one way ticket on the Orient Express. On the train, Poirot finds a diverse group of passengers complete with a governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a flirtatious widow (Pfeiffer), a gangster masquerading as an art dealer (Depp), his valet (Derek Jacobi) and his bookkeeper (Josh Gad), a Count who is also an internationally known dancer (Sergei Polunin) and his Countess wife (Lucy Boynton), a Princess (Dench) and her maid (Olivia Coleman), a devout Catholic woman (Cruz), an Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe) and a car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). When one of the passengers is found dead, it is up to Poirot to find the culprit before another can fall victim to the murderer.
Poirot starts interviewing the passengers, offering the audience a chance to wrap their heads around who each of the train’s inhabitants are. They can be difficult to keep track of and very few are given enough screen time to really add anything to the story other than the addition of another name to the suspect list, but still at times you can’t help but wonder why this train is only four cars long and only holds sixteen people. Throughout the course of the film, the only player we really spend enough time with is Poirot and luckily Branagh brings another show-stopping performance to the screen, complete with brilliantly delivered monologues and hilarious touches such as a protective sleeping mask for his mustache. He and the case are both intriguing and exciting enough to keep the audience wanting more.
Unfortunately, as the clues start falling into place, the answer to the puzzle becomes increasingly obscured. The investigation process starts to feel tedious and will even verge on boring for those who know the ending. For those who have not read the book or seen the other adaptions, the ending will feel cobbled together and too conveniently confusing. The idea behind the novel was probably thought of as daring in the past, but for today’s audience it is far too milquetoast and lacks a real hook.
For the most part “Orient Express” stays true to Agatha Christie’s novel and will keep viewers entertained. Branagh is known for sticking by his source material, but in this case it didn’t help the film, leaving viewers with something that at times falls flat. Even the clever use of cinematography, which definitely helps to keep the storytelling engaging and the singular location from feeling too claustrophobic, couldn’t save the film. All in all, “Orient Express” is easy viewing with a great cast helping it chug along, but it lacks any real impact and will have audience members leaving the theaters without fully quenching their thirst for mystery.