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Murder on the Orient Express is a classic whodunit brought back to the big screen by star and director Kenneth Branagh. With a killer cast and a killer mustache for Branagh to boot, Murder should be a home run – instead, it’s at best a pleasant distraction.
Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name is one of the most famous murder mysteries out there. Having apparently spent much of my life living under a rock, I went into the 2017 adaptation not knowing anything about the story – including its big, famous twist ending. In hindsight, this version of Murder on the Orient Express is not the best introduction to the tale.
Legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is on route to his next case via the Orient Express, when the train is derailed by an avalanche. Soon after, one of the passengers, Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is found dead in his room. There is a murderer somewhere on the train and Poirot is determined to find out who it is.
On the positive side, this is a gorgeous, lush production full of picturesque landscapes, stunning costume design and eye-popping colors. Murder doesn’t hold back on the eye-candy, which makes seeing it on the big screen worth it just for the visual spectacle alone. It’s a movie that knows full well how good it looks and milks it as much as possible, with long tracking shots emphasizing the high production values. Characters brave the bitter cold outside to let audiences soak in the wide open spaces as well get some fabulous exterior shots of the derailed train.
The ensemble cast is also a notable attraction – Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr. – this is certainly not a movie that’s short on talent. Granted, not everyone gets a chance to truly shine, but given how large the cast is, that’s kind of unavoidable.
Branagh’s Poirot is a fussy perfectionist, but his quirks and eccentricities are played for laughs. He’s a charming, almost excessively polite man with a fantastic mustache that’s just shy of utter ridiculousness. In this movie, the mystery on board the Orient Express is not just a challenge to Poirot’s intellectual prowess and skills as a detective. The famous sleuth is tired of his line work of and in desperate need of some rest but is compelled by his strong moral fiber to continue his pursuit of justice. Growing fatigue, the complexity of the case and the moral dilemma it ultimately presents weigh down on Poirot greatly. That and the fact that Poirot develops a closer relationship with some of the passengers, particularly the governess (Daisy Ridley) leads to a number of interesting character moments. In addition, some of the casting choices have made the Orient Express bunch more diverse, which allows the movie to complicate the investigation with issues of racism and prejudice.
All of that being said, the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express simply isn’t a good mystery. The way it presents many of its clues, as well as some crucial backstory information, leaves much to be desired, and the explanation isn’t as clear as it should be given the complexity of the case. When news of the murder breaks out, Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) proclaims that a man had broken into her room and that she’d complained about it. This comes across as rather clunky since this is the first time she mentions it. Similarly, the Armstrong case, which is of central importance to the story, is only ever brought up after it becomes relevant.
Everyone gives solid performances, with the type of grand theatricality that suits the dialogue and the lavish production. Pfeiffer, Branagh and Ridley are excellent. Of the bunch, Johnny Depp has seemingly the least to do, which kind of goes with the character.
The famous twist falls rather flat here, which coming from someone who’s experiencing it for the first time is saying something. Murder on the Orient Express is a compelling mystery on a conceptual level, but the 2017 adaptation stumbles its way through the investigation and the explanation, making the whole ordeal not nearly as exciting as it should be.
It’s a movie that never rises above pleasant, which would be fine if it wasn’t bursting at the seams with talent. You can’t help but feel this is a bit of waste. The obnoxiously referential/sequel-baiting ending also leaves a bitter aftertaste.