ORIENT EXPRESS is a Fun, If Unfulfilling Ride

Kenneth Branagh’s update of the classic Agatha Christie novel is a beautiful film with fun moments, but it leaves the audience wanting at its conclusion.

Murder on the Orient Express
Directed by Kenneth Branagh 
Starring Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. 
Run time: 114 minutes 

WARNING: Minor spoilers follow.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is one of author Agatha Christie’s most well-known and beloved mysteries, and since the book was published in 1934, it has been adapted into a feature film in 1974 and a 2001 TV movie, along with a miniseries in 2015. It’s a classic mystery, and director and star Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation can’t really rely on the mystery of who committed the film’s titular act. Instead, the latest adaptation of the book relies on the interactions of a brilliant cast, stunning cinematography and the hope that the film’s positives distract from what becomes a fairly pedestrian and disappointing final act.

For those unfamiliar with the story – and I admit I hadn’t read the book or seen any of the previous adaptations – MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS follows famed detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) on a train ride to London from Jerusalem where Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a shady American, is murdered. Poirot, trapped on the train after an avalanche blocked its path, takes up the cause to discover Ratchett’s murder.

For a two-hour movie, the main story takes too long to get going, as the adaptation spends too much of its first half setting up the plot. Once the murder takes place and Poirot sets about trying to figure out the whodunit of it all, the plot feels like it needs to rush to get to its conclusion to meet its fairly-short run time. Sidney Lumet’s well-loved 1974 adaptation ran an extra 14 minutes, and I think this movie could have benefitted from a little more time to devote to Poirot’s machinations. That, or cut down some of the exposition in the first half.

The detective is an eccentric character, longing for a break from his career, though no one seems willing to give him that amenity. I really enjoyed Branagh’s performance, from the signature mustache to Poirot’s little quirks. He gave another of his typically wonderful jobs with the role, and as a director, he had an amazingly talented cast who work well together to lift up a script that falls apart when it needs to shine the most.

One of the best scenes in the movie, I thought, was Poirot’s sit-down with Ratchett, where Depp’s character tries to hire the detective to protect him, because he rightfully feared for his life, though Poirot refuses. Both Depp and Branagh seemed to have fun with the scene, as Depp matched Branagh’s quirky performance line for line.

Another of the film’s great performances comes from Willem Defoe, playing an Austrian scientist who isn’t at all what he seems. When he is finally revealed to be a cop from New York, he shifts his performance and seemingly starts to channel Lenny Briscoe, Jerry Orbach’s Law & Order character. The rest of the cast, made up of wonderfully performers, holds its own, but they don’t really rise above Michael Green’s script.

After a slow start that ramped up in the heart of the movie, everything falls apart in the final half hour of the movie, as Poirot puts together the crime and deals with the consequences. A good mystery builds from the first act and pays off at its conclusion, but there was way too much padding at the beginning, and too little focus on how Poirot is able to unravel the mystery, making him seem almost preternatural in his detective skills.

If you enjoyed the 1974 feature film, it may be a wise idea to skip this version, as I doubt it offers anything new to the story. Though, if you’re just looking for a way to kill a couple of hours watching a number of high-caliber actors having some fun, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a good way to do that. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking.