'Murder On The Orient Express' Review: An Earnest But Uninspired Mystery

If you're going to see Murder on the Orient Express, try to catch it in 70mm. Much of the pleasure that can be derived from the movie comes from simply looking at it: director Kenneth Branagh has made a film that's undeniably gorgeous (aside from a few miscalculated additions of CGI). It's as sumptuous as a movie about a train line that came to be synonymous with luxury travel ought to be. The rest of the movie doesn't quite live up to that bar, but by God, it tries.

The key to the whole endeavor is Branagh himself as the detective Hercule Poirot. He's so earnest — and so unquestionably the only actor alive who could pull off certain parts of the script with such conviction — that it's almost difficult to hold any of the film's flaws against him. He's an ineffably charming Poirot, a stickler for details and unafraid of being an eccentric; the only problem is that the rest of the film isn't quite as dialed in.

The film is adapted from what is perhaps Poirot's most famous adventure, in which he solves a murder that has taken place on board the Orient Express, a train that ran from 1883-2009 from Paris to Constantinople. The cast comprises 17 characters, including Poirot, and it's mostly in respect to the scope necessary to juggle so many characters that the film fails.

The assembled cast is impressive — Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, and Michelle Pfeiffer play some of the other passengers on board the train — but a typical movie runtime (this one clocks in at just under two hours) isn't quite enough to give everyone a fair shake. This would be less of a problem if the story weren't what it is, i.e. everyone has an equal part to play in the events that transpire. As such, as clues start to come to light — or rather, as a large number of them are dumped on us all at once — the mystery plays out in a fashion that's distressingly linear.

To that end, Murder on the Orient Express plays similarly to this fall's other big mystery, The Snowman. There's no real evidence presented to us throughout the movie — almost every clue that would have been necessary for the audience to piece things together on their own is withheld until the very end, at which point it becomes fairly pointless because the way we're being given them is through Poirot's explanation of what happened. As such, how well the movie plays will largely depend on how much the audience buys into the emotional plight of the characters in it.

To be fair, there's not a single bad performance in the movie. Tom Bateman as Bouc, the director of the train, is particularly charming, even if he comes off a bit like an attempt at providing a young, hip sidekick in case Poirot isn't enough to keep a younger viewer's attention. Josh Gad also acquits himself remarkably well in a role that doesn't play to the kind of comic antics that he's better known for, especially given the fact that he's placed next to heavyweights like Derek Jacobi (great, as always). It's just that they don't really have much to do. Even the characters that were adapted specifically for the people playing them aren't given their due. Penélope Cruz, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (especially great), and Leslie Odom Jr. all play adapted roles, but feature much less heavily than this kind of adaptation would (or should) warrant. This is a politically aware Poirot, yes — much is made of race, specifically in pointing out how petty and cruel prejudices are — but this isn't a film that's interested in exploring that too deeply.

Instead, the main goal is to point out how there are shades of grey in the workings of justice. This would be perfectly admirable if not for the fact that it feels rather a lot like Poirot — if he's the greatest detective in the world — should know this already. Given the blatantly sequel-baiting ending, much of the film's structural integrity falls apart under this particular lens. I don't need Hercule Poirot's origin story, as it were. I'm perfectly happy just to watch him solve crimes.

But, all that said, the film is so sincerely made that it's difficult to begrudge it too much. Branagh loves what he's working with, and he loves Poirot. The entire movie is loaded with the kind of fondness that those of us who grew up with Agatha Christie's books and adaptations will readily recognize, and the cheeseball nature of the script seems to go hand-in-hand with that: it's very much a "the real answer is the friends we made along the way" situation. Your mileage may vary.

Ironically, the more time I spend thinking about Murder on the Orient Express, the fonder I feel of it, even if I know objectively that I shouldn't be giving it so much leeway. I'd like to see Branagh as Poirot again, preferably with a murder that isn't solved entirely in the last scene of the film. This film is a little creaky in that respect — and with the specter of Johnny Depp looming over it all — but it's not un-fun to watch. Again, every cast member is superb, and it's a gorgeous movie to look at. How much its flaws stand out depends entirely on how much you're willing to buy into its earnestness, which is as impossible to miss as Branagh's mustache.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10