There’s plenty of facial hair in the newest rendition of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express—famous detective Hercule Poirot’s signature upturned mustache returns to the big screen on the face of Kenneth Branagh. It’s in good company, too. Its co-stars include the tamer styles framing the upper lips of Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Leslie Odom, Jr. But even with the commitment to good grooming and better casting choices, Murder on the Orient Express fails to live up to its source material.
Poirot comes to the audience as a wearied older man who just wants a break from solving cases. He’s particular about everything, down to measuring his breakfast to see if the height of his eggs are exact. While he is on his vacation, he is called back to London for a case, but can only make it back via a trip on the Orient Express. When one of the passengers in his first-class coach, Samuel Ratchett (Depp), turns up dead in his room and an avalanche causes the train to get stuck on the tracks, Poirot is back to business. Since the murder occurred at night when the car is locked, suspects are limited to the 13 other passengers. From there, Poirot grills each to solve the murder before the train arrives to its stop in Yugoslavia.
Despite the exciting prospect of a murder, the film does little to make it seem like there’s any reason to solve the case right away. There’s a line that says the Yugoslavian police will assume one of the characters of color did it and arrest them, but neither of those characters act like there’s too much heat on them, and Poirot does not seem terribly interested in their fate, either. In fact, the movie plays with the races of its characters in a way that seems a bit unnecessary—Cyrus Hardman (Willem Dafoe), one of Ratchett’s bodyguards in the books, masquerades as an Austrian engineer named Gerhard who spouts Nazi rhetoric about other passengers being of an inferior race. The only new addition Branagh adds to the source material is the benefit of hindsight, which highlights potential prejudices against characters, but does nothing to encourage a conversation about them in the film.
The movie also leaves out some of the critical evidence that makes Christie’s novel a page-turner—one small clue Poirot finds at the beginning proves integral to the rest of the plot, but too little time is spent on it for the audience to digest. Instead, it has to be explained by Poirot, which makes it feel like a bigger logical jump than expected from a mystery movie. Other clues that would reconcile the ending with the previous scenes are left out for some reason, though it didn’t feel like they would have given anything away.
Despite the flaws of the movie, there are stellar performances all around. It’s a who’s-who of Hollywood new and old, featuring the timeless Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff to newcomers Odom, Jr. and Star Wars phenom Daisy Ridley. After going on a Disney kick for his past few movies, Gad turns in a quality performance in a serious role. Michelle Pfeiffer gives a strong performance as husband-hunting Caroline Hubbard, but the biggest crime in this murder mystery is how little attention is paid to any of the supporting actors. Branagh is front and center as Poirot, which makes it difficult to find much of anything out about the other characters. Instead of focusing on a few short introspective scenes in which Poirot ponders the impossibility of such a murder, more time could have been given to developing the characters and their interactions with each other. One character, Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), gets shoved into the plot at the last minute, and by then her association with the murder is confusing at best.
Unlike Branagh’s other directorial efforts—entire high schools have been put to sleep by his four-hour rendition of Hamlet—Murder runs too short, though it drags on. At one hour and 54 minutes, it feels like the audience barely gets to know the characters, but at the same time there’s no edge-of-your-seat tension. This slow drip of a movie could have benefited from a better explanation of why the case needs to be solved right now, or at least a raising of the stakes later on in the film.
Aside from Branagh’s unconvincing Belgian accent, the actor/director gives little development to the main character. When it does happen, it comes too late and does not resolve cleanly. For someone who seems so grizzled and troubled by the many cases he’s seen, it’s a little surprising that Poirot seems to have never run into any kind of moral quandary, which, once he solves the mystery—and he does solve the mystery, no spoilers here—becomes apparent.
For those unfamiliar with the book, the film will come together in a satisfying way. Some heavy-handed imagery toward the end may point you to it, but the last 10 or so minutes of the movie are probably the most engrossing, which is a shame. It might give you a shudder, which is par for the course for Christie’s work, but it won’t give the same feeling that reading the book would. Some things are better in their original form, and maybe Christie’s novels should be respected that way, though it’s doubtful they will. Toward the end of the film, a throwaway line indicates that there could be more adventures with Poirot coming to movie screens in the future. That’s a train I won’t be mad to miss.
Featured image 20th Century Fox