Murder On The Orient Express (2017) (Review)

Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 novel, Murder On The Orient Express, rolled into UK theatres over the weekend, with the next pitstop in American theatres in the coming days. Assembling what may be the flashiest ensemble cast the year has seen, the mystery-drama stars the likes of Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Defoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman and Tom Bateman *and breathe* as the various suspects embroiled in probably the most famed murder mystery of all-time.

When a body is discovered aboard the lavish Orient Express, legendary detective Hercule Poirot must investigate the assortments of interesting characters that shared the cramped space with the murder man, all with the motive and opportunity to kill an evil man. Soon realising everyone is a suspect, he must compile the evidence and catch the killer before they strike again. With the release of this adaptation, 20th Century Fox continue to cultivate their 'blockbuster for adults' slate, which has seen the likes of Logan, A Cure For Wellness, Alien: Covenant, War for the Planet of the Apes and Kingsman: The Golden Circle released this year alone. Does Orient Express keep up the speed, or does it run out of steam?

Lavish, luxurious and theatrical, Murder On The Orient Express is a visually-exciting and striking piece of art that would warrant a cinema trip on a rainy day, if only for the aesthetics alone. They are truly magnificent, with detailed set designs and time-appropriate costumes impressing at every turn, providing the picture with a prestige and grace that allows it to stand-out against the cinematic backdrop at the moment. Alongside some fine hair and make-up elements (and Branagh's Pirot's immense moustache - or should I say moustaches - which would really deserve a paragraph of their own), I can see the film scoring some well-deserved technical nominations come award-season.

Branagh's directorial flair is a large part of the film's success, with an overt theatricality making this essential viewing on the big screen - or in high-definition when it arrives in our homes in a few months time. From the sweeping snow-capped shots to the creeping camera work inside the carriage, almost evoking the movements on another character in the mix, Branagh's work is wonderfully flashy and sumptuously shot. Haris Zambaloukos' cinematography heightens every beautiful landscape excellently, using glass and the idea of facades to dig into some of the underlying theme work subtly and effectively.

A number of stunning set pieces are peppered throughout; a terrific tracking shot that introduces a handful of characters effortlessly in the very first act is the pinnacle of the film; and a second overhead perspective shot as the body is discovered, tiptoeing through cabins and moving characters like they are pieces on a chessboard - or rather, a game of Cluedo, as so many have already highlighted given the film's striking similarities to the popular board game. Furthermore, the final deconstruction of the case, while melodramatic, is powerful in its imagery, bold and exciting as the revelations unfurl. These key sequences really prop the film up through its weaker moments. Orient Express operates rather smoothly for its 114 minute duration too, with just a few bumps in the journey during the middle act's transition into the grand finale.

Of course, Orient Express' major calling is its terrific ensemble, assembled for the variety show-like romp of bygone years. While few of the cast are given anything to really sink their teeth into (and the likes of Coleman and Dench, in particular, are criminally sidelined for the sake of space), they all impress and bear at least part of the weight. A few stand-out emerge, with Pfeiffer making the very most out of her career-resurgence (filed with mother!), providing another formidable turn as one of the train's thirteen passengers; Daisy Ridley digs out some fine emotion, as does Josh Gad; while Branagh is superb as the fabled Belgian detective, hamming up his performance with great exaggeration and excitement, enthusiastically felt by all - audience included. Even Coleman and Dench, while under-utilised, give it their all and each cast member enhances the ensemble splendidly.

Splashy sets, solid direction and a flashy cast do not a movie make though, and the film greatly suffers from a lack of depth. It strikes you as too ostentatious at times, with a failure to delve into Christie’s source matieral is a new or exciting manner; in fact, aside from a couple of obligatory changes to acknowledge the relatively diverse cast (by Hollywood standards), it all feels pedestrian and overly cautious, hesitant to make its own mark. This could have been released in any decade with little disruption to our understanding, rendering the entire film somewhat needless today. While pointless is too harsh a word, because you can find enjoyment within it, the world didn’t really need a  new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express and this end result sadly doesn’t convince you otherwise.

Screenwriter Michael Green has experienced a great deal of success with his adaptations this year, including Logan and Blade Runner 2049 - but his work here brings little to a well-known tale, struggling to elevate it beyond basic surface details. It doesn't help that the story, by design, is so crowded and cluttered with characters, and while he does attempt to streamline the overall piece, it’s more to the detriment of many, rather than the benefit of few. When you are lucky enough to possess a cast of this calibre, their talents should be embraced - but Green (somewhat understandably) cannot find the space to do so. At least they all have nice scenery to chew, I guess.  Thankfully self-aware, everything is said and done with a cheeky wink and nudge, making it light-hearted and frothy enough to be enjoyed as the serviceable piece of entertainment it is.

While it becomes too formulaic during the second act, hampered by bizarre sequences designed only to deliver variety with the setting (including a glaringly shoe-horned interrogation sequence complete  with a half-assed explanation to try and justify this jarring change in scenery), Branagh gets it back on track for the climax. It's pretty impressive, considering just how cluttered it is with characters, that the film executes a relatively-easy to follow culmination with defined character motives, no matter how bogged down with exposition it is. In fact, the whole final third was well-orchestrated and handled, ending the picture on a solid note.

Murder on the Orient Express is an engaging piece of nostalgia, a good ol' fashioned romp that will entertain if little more. Thanks to a marvellous ensemble and a fine director, it's a mainly well-orchestrated, if ultimately needless piece of cinema. The Agatha Christie Extended Universe (name to be decided) starts solidly and serviceably with this whodunnit tale and while it's not something I'll convince you to dash out and see, it's cinematic, frothy and lively enough to maintain momentum and release steam. Ticket at the ready if the Orient Express is a journey you can see yourself enjoying.


Summary: Murder on the Orient Express may be a needless adaptation when all is said and done, but it's serviceable and cinematic enough, bolstered by fine direction and terrific ensemble, to justify its existence.