Review! Murder on the Orient Express (2016) Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe. IMDB says “A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.”
Kenneth Branagh pulls double duty directing and starring in Murder on the Orient Express – the classic murder mystery tale from the mind of Agatha Christie. With a stacked cast including Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley, Branagh has all he needs to pull off the ultimate caper film, but does he succeed?
For less informed murder mystery enthusiasts, MOTOE is a well-established staple of the genre. I happen to be a HUGE fan of that genre and was surprised to see that a star-studded film was making its way to screen. The exemplary story was also remaining right within its roots, sticking to the original 1930s time period and setting. Maybe it’s just me but that seemed like it was actually quite a ballsy move from a production standpoint not to “update” or modernize the story in some way. Regardless, I was quite happy that they chose to handle the material the way they did.
Because Murder on the Orient Express stays close to its source material, it undoubtedly won’t be for everyone. There are genre formalities to get through – the suspects, the clues, and of course the discovery of hidden motivations. It can be a slog to get through if you aren’t the type of person that enjoys this structure but for fellow armchair detectives, it’s the ultimate indulgence. I crave stories like this and I really enjoyed experiencing this on the big screen, especially through my partners’ eyes – as he was not familiar with the story.
As expected, the cast does a fine job holding their own within the sprawling scenes. I would hate to single out anything specific but I especially enjoyed moments from Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Phiffer. Branagh plays the famous detective Hercule Poirot with appropriate vigor although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think his mustache was doing most of the character’s heavy lifting.
My only major gripe about the film lands with Kenneth Branagh’s direction. The movie looks sleek and new but certainly wasn’t as sexy or inspired as it could have been. For a film that boasts such wonderful set design and costuming, as well as lovely exterior settings, nothing about the overall production felt quite as compelling or seductive as it could have been. I will say that I was impressed with the pacing of the film, with a cast so large it would be easy to meander or lose focus. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film might have had more impact on an overall emotional level had the director been able to inspire more visual curiosity and intrigue. Like most Branagh films I’ve seen, the end result is competent but never remarkable.
For some viewers, the language and formal strides of these types of stories will be a real turn off. Those of us accustomed to the elaborate unweaving of character motives and clues will be present for the final whodunit conclusion. With a bit of trepidation, I asked my partner what he thought of the film and unexpectedly he said he really enjoyed it. “I like those types of stories” he said, “Kind of like a sit with your coffee and pour over the clues type of story.” I’ve never been so in love.