You can heave a sigh of relief everyone, Johnny Depp doesn’t make it far in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. An adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, Murder quickly dispenses with the weaselly superstar, here playing a slimy criminal who ends up a pin cushion the very night the titular Orient Express departs. The attention then turns to the patrons of a first-class coach traversing the snowy countryside, each of whom may have reason to want Johnny Depp dead.
Branagh tries to pitch Murder on the Orient Express as a throwback whodunnit with Golden Age of Hollywood sensibilities, packing the screen with a superstar cast that includes Penélope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe and dazzling audiences with the kind of elegant glitz and glamorous production value that only a movie of the utmost class could deliver. Unfortunately, the window dressings prove much more dazzling than the wares inside – the central mystery a talky bore that fails to inspire much intrigue; the cast, all-star or no, largely failing to impress, offering hammy, exaggerated portrayals much better suited to a bygone era of acting, one predating Stella Adler’s thespian spell cast over Tinseltown. The only character to really grab my attention and sustain it throughout was Tom Bateman‘s unscrupulous Bouc, a handsome devil of a man reveling in his wicked desires.
Branagh’s attention singularly focused on the decorative aspects of Murder, the cast of dubious suspects mostly fall by the wayside, none of them making much of an impression, their costumes and hair styles left to do most of the character heavy lifting. Certain scenes shared between actors can be criminally stiff, the script from Michael Green (Green Lantern, Logan) asking for impractical tete-a-tetes that lack any sense of real human emotion. To call the exchange between many of these characters soulless would not be far off. They simply just do not act like human beings so much as archetypes of human beings. Further, Murder itself never feels like it’s taking place in any recognizable reality, the occupants of the train stiffly co-existing in this awkward sardine can transport but somehow, for how many times we’re told the train is full, we only really ever see about a dozen characters onboard. This keeps audiences at arm’s length, unwilling to engage with these flat characters and subsequently the humdrum murder mystery swirling around them.
The only person in Murder who is paid a fair amount of attention is Branagh’s mastermind criminal investigator Hercule Poirot, a French detective with a mustache so divine it has its own mustache. So successful at solving unsolvable cases that he’s become a worldwide celebrity, Poirot is a Belgian Sherlock Holmes and Branagh mostly plays him as such. Though Branagh has an undeniable twinkle in his eye as Poirot, he too is a relic of a character; one who evidently works better on page than screen. Perhaps he would have proven a more interesting centerpiece if someone like Christopher Waltz were in the drivers seat but alas, that is not the case.
Poirot approaches the world in a rigid manner, his ability to divine truth a useful side effect of his overtly anal qualities; the European gentlemen is such a stickler for order that he refuses to consume his soft-boiled eggs unless they are precisely the same size. He even brings a measuring stick to breakfast just to be sure. When Poirot just happens to be the wrong train at the wrong time, he’s forced to contend with a series of clues that just don’t seem to add up, where suspects appear to be everywhere and motives are as populous as the very coach he’s stuck in.
With such an impression collection of performers and truly stunning production design, Murder should be a one-way ticket to audience-pleasing holiday season blockbuster fare but rather proves an express train to boredom, and that is certainly the biggest crime committed of all. Making an engaging adaptation of Christie’s novel is hardly a Herculean task. The elements for a successful telling are all there but Branagh largely misses the forest for the trees, hoping we’ll linger on Haris Zambarloukos’ (Thor, Cinderella) radiant cinematography or Alexandra Byrne‘s (Thor, Doctor Strange) sumptuous costumery. If only Branagh had put same care in the characters as he had the scenery.
CONCLUSION: Not worth boarding, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ has a heck of a time investing audiences in its rather unengaging mystery. A talky whodunit whose dialogue is often stiff and notably unclever, ‘Murder’ fails to present interesting characters though the production design, costumes and cinematography are handsome beyond belief.