Just as it arrives at its destination, Murder On The Orient Express derails
No one can write a twisty murder story quite like the queen of mystery herself. Agatha Christie’s novels have been a particular pass time of mine since the day I’ve read the brilliant And Then There Were None, a story that inspired and continues to inspire many famous modern mystery films. Yet, I’ll be the first to admit that Mrs Agatha doesn’t get enough credit for her influence on TV and cinema. However, even in an attempt to give her the credit she deserves, this remake of Murder On The Orient Express just can’t quite capture the greatness of the novel.
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the peculiar detective, has a big job on its hand when his peaceful return home becomes another mystery. One of the passengers of the Orient Express has been brutally murdered in the night. With eleven possible suspects, Poirot will have to dig deep to solve the biggest mystery of his career.
At its core, there are two challenges when facing a novel adaptation, and Branagh gets the first one right. His Murder On The Orient Express indulges in early 1900 aesthetic drenched in a jazzy score and beautiful set design. The fancy fur coats, the perfectly folded napkins, and the gothic train all look magnificent as the long shots pan through. All these elegant set pieces add to the dazzling style of the film. For the most part, this is emphasised with the care and precision of the prepossessing cinematography. Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos find creative and effective ways to shoot in the confined space of the train in a way that doesn’t feel claustrophobic nor tight. They manage to make the smallest of spaces feel grand, and the film is the better for it.
As the characters embark on their ride home, their introductions are simple yet cleverly effective. Their look and their line of dialogue instantly tell you exactly their personality. The only character to get an extended introduction is Hercule Poirot, our main character. He becomes the best character among them all mostly because of Branagh’s terrific and quirky performance. His peculiarities never feel out of place and offer up some of the film’s hilarious moments. However, even as the other characters can’t get the lengthy introduction, they manage to look amazing and embody exactly what Christie has written.
With eleven characters, it’s here where Murder On The Orient Express manages to derail. After the passenger has died, Branagh doesn’t have the same creative ideas as the first act. Most of the characters are left in the cold, and some are never even seen again. They don’t get their shining moment to make an impression other than their introduction a while back. Even as Poirot interviews all characters, their restrictiveness doesn’t help their characters flourish.
And it’s with these underwritten characters that Murder On The Orient Express isn’t able to fully capture Agatha Christie’s famous novel. Her complex and interesting characters are underutilised in most of the film, and while they do visually embody Christie-like characteristics, their sense of being isn’t highlighted. As Christie understood it, the trick to any good mystery is fully fleshed out characters which will, in turn, make every other moving part work.
Furthermore, Branagh finds creative visuals to accompany critical moments of the novel. His re-creation of Vinci’s The Last Supper during the climax of the film adds a nice touch to the otherwise, overly rushed scene. Here, the dialogue-heavy reveal just doesn’t give justice to how brilliantly Christie was able to shock you in her novel. If anything, the twist is quite underwhelming, even as there is potential there for something bigger. The twist could have been more effective if it had had a lot of time to develop its characters. Of course, it’s also the case that mystery novels are incredibly steeped in literary devices that don’t always work well when brought to the big screen and Murder On The Orient Express is an unfortunate example.
What starts off as a fun and surprisingly successful murder mystery quickly loses steam as the train chugs along. The mystery just doesn’t feel cinematic enough, and the dialogue-heavy reveal managed to muddy one of Christie’s most famous twist. Even with elegant set design and impressive cinematography, Murder On The Orient Express can’t quite intrigue you to the potential that it could’ve. While undoubtedly close, Branagh hasn’t fully cracked the winning formula Christie so expertly had, and if they are to build a cinematic universe, they might want to solve their own problems going forward.
Murder On The Orient Express comes out November 10.