Whether or not you’re already acquainted with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express will no doubt affect how you experience the ending of Kenneth Branagh’s new film adaptation thereof. One of the drawbacks of the mystery genre: you can only find out who did it once. But that shouldn’t mean the journey from start to finish is any the less engaging.
Just as important as the ultimate reveal—necessary for making it hit with a resonant oomph—is the maintenance of a connection with the looming question, the players involved, and the barriers that contain them within the context of the story at hand. To dismiss the appeal of this lot in light of “already knowing what happens” would be a misstep by any viewer.
But Murder on the Orient Express does that to itself.
Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express seems just as hurried to get to the final act as is its spotlighted detective, the world-renowned Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh himself). This may sound like a curious criticism for a film that runs nearly two hours, but you’d be surprised at how little of the picture is allowed to luxuriate, or even stew, in the rich little world promised by its plot.
That we spend the bulk of our time with Poirot should be a given; Branagh hams it up, occasionally to great amusement, as the obsessive-compulsive detective and host body for a fuzzier take on Ridley Scott’s facehuggers. But with the investigator turning out to be, ironically enough, the only character Branagh is truly interested in investigating, we’re left with a missed opportunity hovering over the rest of the cast.
Branagh has assembled a team of well-documented talent to play his suspects, which makes their shortchanging all the more obvious—why hire Judi Dench for a half-dozen unremarkable lines of exposition? As we careen from one end of the mystery to the other, we don’t quite get to know the Orient Express’ potential murderers as people, but as assemblages of alibis and motives, and fairly lifeless ones at that.
There are, however, a few standout performances among the eclectic civilians whom Poirot interrogates for the on-board murder of a two-bit criminal (Johnny Depp) few will miss. A stiff-upper-lipped Derek Jacobi and a tongue-wagging Michelle Pfeiffer are near the top. Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley get their speeches too, though neither actor's usual talents are on proper display.
The Orient Express itself is likewise deprived of the character it deserves. With Branagh’s eye darting away from this all-important of settings, the fateful train car never is allowed to foster the claustrophobia its story craves, or even to bounce dread between its walls. What we get instead is Branagh and Poirot charging to execute the solution of their great mystery as efficiently as possible.
For a detective, this methodology makes perfect sense. But for a filmmaker, it's damn near fatal. In absence of the above elements, we reach the station with a movie that feels exclusively concerned with its own ending, at the expense of its beginning and middle. Sure, we all want to find out who did it, but don't we want to enjoy the detective work of a detective story?
Rating: 2 out of 5
Images: 20th Century Fox
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.
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