Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Olivia Coleman with Judi Dench and Willem Defoe
Plot: On the way to an important case, Hercules Poirot (Branagh) is on board a train that is stranded. Things take a turn for the worse, when one of the passengers is brutally murdered.
The best thing about Kenneth Branagh’s work is that he only ever accepts projects he is truly passionate about. While occasionally it means theatre-goers are treated to over three-hour Macbeth plays, for the most part, it means we get energetic Cinderella reboots or gritty Frankenstein. And there is an undeniable sense that Branagh is as happy as a pig in muck throughout the entire production process of Murder on the Orient Express. The chance to play the famed Agatha Christie detective is reason enough to raise your well-groomed moustache into a smirk, but as Branagh’s classic murder mystery began to fill with A-Listers, one esteemed actor after the other, he must have had to pinch himself several times. There is something delightful toned down about Branagh’s classical detective story. If it wasn’t for the soaring cinematography, the script would be right at home on a BBC drama. There are several suspicious red herrings, outrageous characters and an untimely death. The stars sprinkled across the surface of this movie give it a fresh appeal. What is most bizarre is that, for a lot of the time, Branagh doesn’t feel star-struck with his impressive cast. There is never any temptation to bulk out Josh Gad’s part, because Gad has had a stonking year in terms of acting. Judi Dench’s Princess Dragomiroff isn’t handed an out-of-character emotional monologue, because the team suddenly landed Dench as an actress. No, the story and rhythm of the classic text flows just how it should, the performances complimenting the overall dish, rather than overpowering it. The only actor who can be accused of over-playing his part is Branagh himself, as the entire film seems built around giving Poirot several amusing quirks and cool moments. And that can be forgiven as part of the reason Agatha fans are swarming to see this motion picture. Branagh is an easy-to-watch delight as the bizarre Belgian often seen laughing hysterically over a Charles Dickens novel or breaking a serious moment to sort out someone’s crooked tie. The other actors are happy to stand back and let the film do most of the talking. Not that anyone is coasting through the film. Depp delivers a marvellous monologue as a hateful arts dealer that fits an entire film’s worth of backstory into a few gripping moments. Ridley proves she’s not just a one-shot wonder who lucked out with Star Wars. And Pfeiffer is as amazing as only Michelle Pfeiffer could be, tearing into the script with hungry passion.
Of course, most of the critics will judge their film on the final twist. If they hated it, god have mercy on Branagh’s passion project as they tear into it with vicious anger. The twist is hardly Branagh’s fault after all, a well-versed shocker that came directly from the pages written by Agatha Christie. For those that aren’t aware of how this brutal murder ties itself up, it will likely come as a reeling, unguessable shock to you, as it did me. The beauty or audacity of the story beat can only be judged in time. It requires a second viewing to see if the small details were secretly pointing that way right from the start. Is our distaste of the twist a knee-jerk reaction, a hate that will disappear as the shock sinks in? For that reason, this review will actually pay no heed to the twist. My concern is more to do with the mystery that comes before it. And a fine conundrum it is too. The Agatha hard-cores will find nothing out of the ordinary in the perplexing set-up Branagh has in store, but newcomers will find the puzzle delightfully taxing. The information comes thick and fast, mystery-lovers aware that the crux of the story will likely be foreshadowed in the most minor of details. But there are so many, so which? Daisy Ridley’s intimate conversation with black doctor, Leslie Odom Jr? Defoe’s racist Austrian engineer? It is an exhausting experience, but one that you wouldn’t have any other way. However, with a story so intricate, the gorgeous cinematography needs to fight to stay noticed. I hope the divisive twist doesn’t rob spotlight away from Haris Zambarloukos’ astonishing work. Overhead shots follow Poirot as he examines the claustrophobic crime scenes. Long tracking shots means that we get a glimpse at each suspect’s nervous faces, the eagle-eyed viewer trying to catch stray expressions that might betray the truth. Perhaps the only beat the film really gets wrong is rushing the ending. As the climax gets nearer, the plot tries to up the stakes and rounds out the cast. However, there is too little time to do so. Willem Defoe has a great character, but we only really get to know him, if we ever do, in the final half hour, making his background useless in terms of emotion. Suspects are pulled out of the hat so late on, their time to shine is voided before it has even begun. The concluding chapter to Murder on the Orient Express is definitely the weakest, regardless of how you find the twist.
Final Verdict: As ever with Branagh’s work, it is undeniably passionate. Great camerawork, an extraordinary cast and a story that only really fumbles the end.