Released 9th November
Seen 18th November
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green
Produced by Twentieth Century Fox, Kinberg Genre, Mark Gordon Company, Scott Free Productions, Latina Pictures & The Estate of Agatha Christie
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison.
The modern murder mystery owes a great debt to Agatha Christie’s work Murder on the Orient Express. Easily one of the most popular novels of all time, it’s a work that continues to inspire artists over 80 years later since it’s publishing and has been adapted into radio plays, TV episodes, games and even Anime. It also had a celebrated adaptation in 1974 by Sydney Lumet and now it’s Kenneth Branagh’s turn… just such a pity for him that those 80 years have worn the edges off this tale.
Earlier this year when I saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets I noted that the original comic was the inspiration for several other films. What I didn’t address back then was how that was part of the problem with the film. When something is as inspirational to an entire genre that everyone steals from it, that’ll make any adaptation of the original inspiration feel like we’ve seen it before because we’ve seen what it influenced. This is a major problem with adapting Agatha Christie’s work like Kenneth Branagh has done here. Beyond the fact that a fast Wikipedia search will tell you the plot and exactly who did it, there’s the fact that everything in this story has been recreated thousands of times since the original novel was published and thus the twists and turns no longer feel new when they’re put on screen, they become cliche because we’re watching an adaptation of the very novel that created those cliche’s. The script is a serviceable adaptation but it doesn’t add anything new or surprising, it’s just a straight copy of the book and because of that, we’re left going “Seen it” for a vast majority of the picture.
This feeling of having seen every cliche before means that the film has to rely heavily on its cast of 17 major characters that have to carry the film. The problem is that in under 2 hours we have to provide 17 characters with an adequate amount of time for us to get to know them. What ends up happening is that instead, we end up focussing on a core group of around 7, while other’s are paired off and pushed aside until their one big scene and then that’s it, they’re there because we’re told they’re there and we can ignore them now. It also means that it’s hard for anyone to really stand out. Kenneth Branagh stands out because he cast himself as the central character and gave himself a very stupid moustache so you can’t miss him. Johnny Depp stands out because he’s playing a bit of an asshole (does that count as acting?) and Willem Dafoe stands out because a German character spouting racial epithets will get you noticed. The only one in this film who truly stands out for all the best reasons is Michelle Pfeiffer who just owns the screen. I’m convinced that Michelle has just taken on the job of ‘movie saver’ because this is the second film I’ve seen this year where she’s the best part. It’s just that in this case she’s the best part of an average film with some annoying problems and in the case of Mother she’s the best part of a film that hates you.
Murder on the Orient Express definitely doesn’t hate you but visually it does enjoy confusing you. Some shots are genuinely amazing, there’s a great long take when Hercule is boarding the train where you can see exactly how big it is and how little room everyone has… and then there are annoying shots like an overhead shot of the murder scene with no cutaways so when they talk about certain clues it’s incredibly awkward. It’s like a bad point-and-click game about a murder mystery instead of a film about one. Other shots just seem ill informed, characters will be adressed and we won’t cut to them for their reaction shots, some shots seem so on the nose that it’s laughable (The final scene contains a literal Last Supper shot… it’s so on the nose that all you can do is laugh) but in general it doesn’t feel like there’s a cohesive style, it feels like they realised how little room they had to work with and decided to try and shoot in every way that they could in order to make their set look better when all it does is give away the facade.
With something as complicated as a murder mystery, the trick is to let the audience in and let them try and solve the crime before Hercule does and it should feel satisfying when he does solve it because we should all go “Oh yeah, that makes sense”. If you want a great example of how to do this then go back and watch the classic comedy Clue where they set it up perfectly, you could absolutely guess the ending before Wadsworth get’s there (Depending on which ending you get, all 3 fit well and feel like they make sense). That never happens here, even if you go in and you know the source material it never feels like the movie lets you in on what’s going on. Hell, the scene when the murder takes place feels like it can’t possibly have happened the way it does thanks to Hercule waking up and peeking out repeatedly, it feels impossible which is a major issue for this kind of film.
It’s not like this is a bad movie, it has a lot of good performers and a fairly decent idea. But it’s a movie made decades too late to be surprising and is slapshot with the central mystery. Without Michelle Pfeiffer being the flawless performer that she is the film might just be completely average but she elevates it just enough to at least keep its head above water… and since they can’t bring her back for the sequel, I worry for them.