Director Kenneth Branagh attempts to reintroduce famed 20th century English mystery writer Agatha Christie’s best-selling 1934 mystery novel, “Murder on the Orient Express,” but his stubbornness to cling onto the last speck of cinematic nostalgia hurts the film in the long run. Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” which opened in American theaters on Friday, would run flat without Christie’s plausible, puzzle piece plot.
The elegant ambiance and excellent casting seem to be the only thing that steers this train in the right direction. Curiosity is what keeps the viewer hooked in this suspense-filled, whodunit train ride where everyone on the train and in the theater is on the edge of their seats.
The journey begins in 1930s Instanbul, where the film’s central character and world famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and his close friend the conductor, Bouc (Tom Bateman) are about to board the world’s most luxurious train, the Orient Express, and travel to London. As the night unfolds, Mr. Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his upper class bunk, narrowing down the suspects to the 12 passengers that also have access to first class. Poirot, portrayed by Branagh, is put to the test when he sets out to solve the one case he can’t crack. The detective, torn between the 12 different suspects — played by an all-star cast from all cinematic backgrounds — has a matter of hours to cuff the hands of the murderer before the train arrives in Paris.
A bird’s eye view camera angle focuses on every suspect’s cabin, leaving the viewers to play their own game of “I spy.” Every spot of blood, nervous hand twitch or drop of sweat is in eye range of the viewer. The presence of the viewer grows stronger with camera pans over every passenger’s face like a “Clue” video game.
Compared to the Sidney Lumet-directed version made in 1974 with stars such as Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman, this 2017 remake has an ethnically-diverse cast and a boosted awareness of racial and religious tensions in the mid 1920s. The new film embraces the idea of the Orient Express having international passengers. The film shows Muslims in Istanbul, Jews in Jerusalem and a romance between the Black English doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the white governess (Daisy Ridley). Unfortunately, as each person of different ethnicity gets on board of the train, the director uses heavy-handed techniques to show this.
Branagh’s emphasis on character development is hardly integrated and subtle. His strain on individualizing each character gives the film an incredibly slow pace. One-third of the movie lingers on Poirot interviewing each suspect, and despite the distinctive attention each character gets, the focus is stuck on typical behavior that is nervous and defensive. The 12 actors find themselves on a repetitive exploration of character depth. Rather than showing any depth to their personalities while being interrogated, the actors have similar reactions to Poirot’s accusations, defeating the purpose of the interviews being such a huge chunk of the film in the first place. Despite the emphasis on individuality, all of them look lost on camera. While the abrupt CGI should have been enough, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Judi Dench’s dusty faces and costumes practically make you sneeze. The only one looking like half a decent person is Branagh himself.
The attempt at adding old-fashioned humor to this modern mystery movie clashes at several points. The silly, jolly humor only suits Poirot and his random chances at solving every murder case. Sadly, the incredible cast gets left behind, looking foolish masking the humor that does not compliment them or their places in the story. At times, Penelope Cruz tries so hard to be the funny and paranoid lady, which is an awkward combination to begin with, that she becomes the joke herself. Michelle Pfeiffer’s expressions are so exaggerated, she looks as if she’s getting her lines fed. It’s a shame that the talented actors had to fall in Branagh’s trap. The acting in the film is similar to your typical high school play gone wrong.
The film does not challenge you as much as it could. Branagh builds the film as a personal and comforting story for the viewer, which isn’t your usual expectation of a thriller. It has been so long since a gritty crime movie has had a riddle-like style that it seems the viewers almost wait for the high anxiety-filled scenes this movie lacks.
If you brush the awkward sequences and faint contradictions under the rug, there’s potential of overlooking the film’s faults and enjoying this traditional tale. Of course with an outstanding plot from the mind of Agatha Christie, a mystery like “Murder on the Orient Express” will not fail to shock you with every in-depth twist and turn.