There are two key issues with adapting Agatha Christie’s work, Murder on the Orient Express, for the big screen. The first being the obvious fact that her stories have been adapted to no end in a variety of mediums. Everyone has their Poirot and will likely be averse towards updated portrayals of the character. From Peter Ustinov to the iconic David Suchet, Kenneth Branagh had a lofty task in redefining the detective for the current generation. The second issue is of course that Christie’s stories are reliant on their deeply woven plots and shocking twists. Such twists have become so well-known that many who want to be surprised simply cannot be, as the alteration of the source material would undo the entire story.
So, Murder on the Orient Express was already facing an uphill battle in winning audiences over, and sadly, that battle was a losing effort. It is by no means a bad movie, but it is the epitome of competent. Everything is done merely to a satisfactory level with little that stands out. Branagh himself does a fine enough job as Hercule Poirot, bringing a certain edge to the role that was absent from David Suchet’s more endearing interpretation that graced British television screens for almost 25 years. His French accent is a little distracting at first, as is his relatively overstated mustache, but it all adds to the indelible charm of the character towards the end.
Where the film suffers most is pacing, ironically enough. The first half spends much of its time ineffectively establishing the large cast of characters, who must all get equal focus due to the litany of established stars portraying them. This leads to awkward stretches in which people will disappear from the narrative after having a heavy amount of emphasis placed on them, only to reappear abruptly when it’s convenient to the plot. The strong ties to the literary method of storytelling found in Christie’s book do not lend themselves well to the screen here, nor does the all-star cast vying for screen time. Each actor suffocates the other and Branagh is the only one who escapes unscathed, just by virtue of the fact that he’s in every scene.
Not without its technical merit, Murder on the Orient Express is at the very least visually pleasing. The production design works in tandem with the costumes to evoke the correct sense of period, every frame is stuffed to bursting with imagery that feels as if it has leaped directly off the page of a Poirot tale. Branagh’s signature European cinema influences shine through and are welcome in the otherwise uninteresting story that’s playing out on the titular train. The film most certainly gathers some momentum once the main players are assembled in close quarters, but watching Poirot go around in circles with his accusations becomes tiresome as he shifts from suspect to suspect.
Poirot’s stories are not impossible to film for theatrical release, as the 1974 edition of this same book starring Albert Finney is a wonderful mystery thriller. But we are now in an era where the influences of classic detective fiction are so firmly established that rehashes of old twists feel passé. What was once innovative is now tiresome, and when the point of your film is to shock the audience, it’s a tough sell when your shock ending can be seen coming from afar even by those who are unfamiliar with the book. Elements that are enjoyable stem from certain cast members, mostly from Johnny Depp, which is a pleasant surprise. The man’s been accused in recent years of phoning in his performances, but he fits the gangster role well, which he has proven over the years with films such as Donnie Brasco and Black Mass. Daisy Ridley has significant emphasis placed on her character, with her stock being sky high as her appearance is sandwiched between two Star Wars movies. She does a good enough job, holding her own with dramatic powerhouses including the likes of Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi. However, it’s an unremarkable performance, much like the rest of the film, lacking any tangible strengths that help elevate it to a high level.
Murder on the Orient Express is not entirely without merit. It’s a film that looks gorgeous and toys with the intimate geography of being trapped on a train with adept camera work and smooth editing. But it is a film with no heart or soul, a piece that relies on its star power and audience of Poirot fans to carry it through. It’s unfortunate that it is so painfully mediocre, as there is a deep talent pool to be utilized both in front of and behind the camera. What should have been a sure-fire success is a plodding and fatally boring trudge through the snow that is devoid of shock or suspense. This most certainly won’t challenge anyone’s little grey cells.