When done right, murder mysteries can be some of the most effective stories told on film. The confidence of the detective, the subtle and overt clues sprinkled in throughout, the cycling through potential suspects — each of these and more often make for riveting viewing.
Mystery writer Agatha Christie is renowned for her ability to spin a good tale, so it seems difficult to mess up one of her most popular stories, Murder on the Orient Express. And yet director Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green (who is wrapping up an extraordinarily busy year that also included Logan, Alien: Covenant, and Blade Runner 2049) never get a handle on the material.
Branagh does double duty as detective Hercule Poirot, who’s in demand all over the world because of his unique skills. After receiving a message asking for his help in Europe, Poirot, at the last minute, boards the Orient Express train traveling from Turkey. It’s a fortuitous turn of events, as he’s in place to try to solve a murder that happens during the first night of the journey.
Naturally, everyone is a suspect, including Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench). Poirot methodically interviews all of them, slowly but surely deducing exactly what happened that fateful night.
Early on, a smattering of funny scenes suggests that Branagh and Green will try to keep the film light while dealing with something deadly serious. Once on the train, though, the story loses its sense of humor almost completely, leaving the audience with the intricacies of the mystery as the only source of entertainment.
That wouldn’t be an issue if the story was suitably thrilling. Unfortunately, at least the way Branagh stages it, the film is almost devoid of any suspense. It appears the plot has barely been updated, if at all, and as it stands, it’s too convoluted and stuffy to be entertaining.
Much of the fun of a good mystery is being able to figure things out alongside the detective or other characters. Branagh keeps us mostly in the dark about the process, choosing instead to focus on the all-knowing intellect of Poirot. When he figures out the meaning of a clue, there’s no great sense of discovery; it’s a simple building block toward the solution.
If you’ve read the book, you know that the murder is just one of the mysterious things Poirot discovers on the train. For the other to be effective, it requires us to actually care about the rest of the characters. Unfortunately, we never get a sense of who anybody is but Poirot. Each of the other characters might as well be a mannequin given the emotional impact they have on the story.
For all the star power in the film (Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, and Derek Jacobi also make appearances), Branagh is the only one who’s halfway interesting. Even then, Poirot’s glorious mustache is most of the appeal, as the feat of hair engineering runs roughshod over anything Branagh is saying.
This version of Murder on the Orient Express demonstrates the danger of revering source material too highly. It may have been crackling good entertainment in 1934, but it leaves a lot to be desired in 2017.