Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars
When I first saw this trailer, I had little awareness that this was a remake of a movie from the 70’s, or that there had been other TV and film remakes over the years, or that any of this was based on a book by author Agatha Christie. Aside from Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know of many other famous fictional detectives but apparently the name Hercule Poirot is a relatively famous reoccurring character in popular culture. What drew me to this film was the stellar cast and the promise of a compelling, old-fashioned murder mystery. For the most part, I got what I was seeking and a bit more than I expected…but also a bit less at the same time. Much like the true identity of the killer, my feelings towards this film is a bit more complicated and not as easy to decipher at first glance.
The most celebrated detective in the world, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is leaving for a much-needed vacation on the Orient express train. Things become difficult however when an avalanche stalls the train, and during its downtime, a passenger (Johnny Depp) is murdered, and everyone on board is now a suspect. Poirot reluctantly decides to take the case. He must investigate every passenger and determine who the culprit is before the train starts moving again and risk losing the killer when they finally reach their destination. I can’t remember the last time we had a good “who dunnit” mystery, I also can’t remember the last time, so many talented stars were assembled so tightly all together in one film.
Aside from Branagh and Depp, we also got Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe. I was amazed at how fast and steadily progressive the story was. People are interviewed one by one, each more revealing new pieces to an ever-growing puzzle and each one having a credible reason for wanting the victim to die. We really feel like it’s a race against the clock and it helps keeps us confused and intrigued as people’s stories become even more complicated. By the time we reach the climax and finally learn the truth behind the murder, everything has become so complicated now that even our main characters don’t know what to make of everything or how we’re supposed to feel about all of this.
It’s a genius way to involve everyone in the film and put difficult questions up for debate, ones that even after having days to mull it over, I still I don’t have the answer to. The stellar cast keeps the characters memorable and excellently portrayed. There wasn’t a weak link amongst the stars. Personal shout outs to the exceptionally talented performances of Pfeiffer, Depp, Dafoe, Ridley, and Branagh. I appreciate Branagh’s touch as a director. Not everyone can make a period film strike a chord with most modern audiences, but he managed to make everything feel timeless as well as period accurate. The presentation keeps everyone engaged and everything interesting without losing anything in the translation to this much older and more forgotten time.
Branagh himself as Poirot was a bit awkward at first. His introduction came off as comical and almost Charlie Chaplin in nature, which didn’t always fit well with the morose tone of the murder mystery. I almost felt like I was watching the wrong movie when we first see the lighthearted yet expert approach he takes to solve a mystery prior to boarding the Orient express. Another unfortunate problem is with the aforementioned stellar cast. None of their characters come off as lackluster or flat; it’s just there’s a distinct lack of exposure considering the size and scope of the cast. There isn’t enough time for everyone to shine as we know they would, everything keeps moving forward too briskly and leaves some a tad shorthanded.
I can’t help but feel this movie would have really attracted some award nominations if it had been just a bit longer so that most of this stellar list of stars could have really put their talents to proper good use; instead of just skimming off the top which is what it feels like here. It’s a tricky issue since no one-half asses their work, but there’s just not enough of it to make proper use of all the talent here either. Overall, “Murder on the Orient Express” does a fine job of what it was trying to accomplish. The cast is amazing, the ending is stunningly superb, and it’s a timeless timepiece, I just can’t help feeling if Branagh tried a little bit harder or the movie was a little bit longer, this could have been so much more than what we got.