‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Review: Who Knew a Murder Mystery Could Be This Boring?
It takes effort to make a murder mystery boring. It takes even more effort to adapt a classic piece of crime fiction, cast it with an impressive roster of actors, dress them up in gorgeous period garb, and surround them by scenic exteriors, only to make it totally joyless. While Agatha Christie’s 1934 detective novel Murder on the Orient Express has all the makings of a good old fashioned whodunit, from a killing to suspicious personalities, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation wastes the best things about the genre. Where did all his effort go, one might ask? Into making a giant Kenneth Branagh vanity project.
Set in the 1930s, Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, the second big-screen adaptation following Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version (there was also a 2001 TV movie), follows the murder of a gangster on a lavish train headed to France. Everyone on board becomes a suspect, from a Spanish Catholic nun to a racist Austrian professor to a Hungarian Count and his former ballerina wife. I could rattle off the names of the many familiar faces starring in the film, but it wouldn’t matter. This movie has two stars and two stars only: Kenneth Branagh, in a cringe-worthy Belgian accent as famed detective Hercule Poirot, and Kenneth Branagh’s absurdly large mustache, which looks like it has its own mustache growing on top of it.
As a director, Branagh has often favored projects that star himself as pompous leading men — including Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V — so casting himself as Poirot is hardly surprising. That isn’t to say Branagh is miscast as the obsessive compulsive, morally righteous detective; quite the opposite. Branagh is actually perfect as the arrogant Belgian who repeatedly boasts about being the world’s greatest detective, playing up the similarly narcissistic notes of his Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter. But as the director he must have misunderstood that Murder on the Orient Express, unlike some of his Shakespearian dramas, isn’t centered around one man; it’s supposed to be an ensemble.
The director Branagh has no eyes for anyone but himself, literally — the nearly two-hour movie is mainly composed of prettily framed shots of Branagh’s Poirot, often with the train decoratively placed in the background. “Is Murder on the Orient Express just an excuse for Branagh to get a cool snowy desktop background with himself sporting a mustache?” is a thought I had while Poirot gives a dramatic monologue. It’s also worth mentioning how much this movie ensures its male actors are lit and shot favorably — including Johnny Depp’s scarred Ratchett, intended to look repugnant, though he doesn’t — yet does not afford the women, especially Michelle Pfeiffer, the same treatment. Branagh must have been too busy staring at himself in the dailies because his film completely wastes the talents of his cast.
If you, as I did, go in to Murder on the Orient Express looking forward to icy one-liners from Pfeiffer’s saucy husband hunter, or for Dame Judi Dench to chew up the scenery as a prissy Russian princess, or for Daisy Ridley to drop the lightsaber and sink into some period drama, you’ll be disappointed. This is even a movie in which Depp plays a character everyone despises, but it will not be satisfying for even the biggest anti-Depp moviegoers. Why cast them, along with Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr., Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman, Lucy Boynton, and ballet dancer-turned-actor Sergei Polunin, if the film gives them nothing to do? The blame should be shared with screenwriter Michael Green. Instead of fleshing out the film’s mix of supporting characters, Green gives Branagh terrible dialogue like, “Liars will have to answer to two people: Your god, and Hercule Poirot.”
And then there’s the murder mystery, which includes approximately zero suspense. While I haven’t read Christie’s novel, the whodunit sounds pretty compelling on paper, but the movie version is more silly than engaging. The climactic reveal is like something out of a Funny or Die parody, and the murder scene is so preposterous, and so poorly acted, I legitimately felt embarrassed for everyone on screen. Most laughable of all is when Poirot returns again and again to a framed photo of his deceased wife whenever he hits a dead end in the investigation. Is this woman going to become important? Will her ghost pop up and solve the crime? Why does this guy keep crying and muttering, “My Kath-ar-een” in his goofy faux accent? Oh, no reason; she’s not relevant whatsoever. And when Murder on the Orient Express isn’t wading into melodrama, it’s just clunky and dull. As soon as one suspect is believed to be the killer, the movie hardly gives us a chance to sit with it before jumping to the next discovery, all with little explanation. As much information as Poirot throws at us around the murder, the movie crawls along at a slack pace that dares you not to fall asleep.
If anything, the film is a relatively handsome adaptation, with gorgeous production design from Jim Clay (Children of Men) and fantastic costume work from Marvel regular Alexandra Byrne — though it’s odd most of the exterior shots of the train use CGI. Branagh shot it on 65mm, and while it does look quite lovely when projected on film, his flashy directing, with distracting overhead camerawork and tracking shots, feels more like Branagh showing off rather than serving the material. Murder on the Orient Express is trapped in that dreadful in between; it’s not enjoyable, but it’s also not a so-bad-it’s-good disaster. It makes you long to escape the theater to go home and watch a classic whodunit instead.