Murder on the Orient Express (2017) – Film Review
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
by Roger Crow
How good is a joke when you know the punchline? Well, that depends on the comedian of course, but though not a joke, the ‘punchline’ or denouement in Murder on the Orient Express has been around for decades, and knowing the outcome of Agatha Christie’s classic thriller does derail the latest version somewhat.
It’s 1934, and in a terrific opener, famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) solves a theft in Jerusalem, and travels to Istanbul. Receiving a telegram from London about a pending case, Poirot must return home, with his friend offering him a place on the Orient Express.
Once on board, we meet the eclectic characters, including unpleasant American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). He’s received threatening letters from a mystery party, and after Poirot refuses to become his bodyguard, the eponymous atrocity occurs.
However, the killer cannot escape as fate intervenes. The train is derailed during bad weather and shudders to a halt on a bridge.
Among the suspects are Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr John Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi) and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench).
No shortage of possible killers then, and while the first act is like a glorious Christmas present of a film, boasting stunning wrapping, lavish bows, glitter and tinsel, once the content is revealed, the drama is almost as stationary as the train. Suspects are interviewed, backstory fleshed out and there’s the occasional jump scare.
“Astonishing facial hair”
Branagh may be an unlikely Poirot, but he does a great job as the ‘tec with the extravagant ‘tache. For a third of the movie, it’s hard to take my eyes off that astonishing facial hair. It could star in a spin-off movie, it’s so voluminous and characterful.
As ever, his direction is fascinating, especially an overhead scene in which the body is discovered. By the time Ken reveals his third act, the movie gathers a little steam again as the big reveal is unveiled.
It’s certainly not a bad movie, oozing class and style. The players, including a perfectly cast Daisy Ridley and Judi Dench (whose eyes seem to X-ray the soul) are especially terrific, but there’s just something about that second act which nags me as much as my toothache.
At one point Poirot sympathises with Masterman for his own toothache, and it feels like one of those fantasy scenes in Last Action Hero or The Purple Rose of Cairo where characters on screen start talking to a cinemagoer.
It might be sacrilege to suggest that the story isn’t as great as Branagh’s 1991 blockbuster Dead Again, which remains a stunning, often hilarious thriller. This ticks enough boxes to make it well worth a look, including Poirot’s chuckles over Dickens and a mirthsome use of the word ’fudge’, but CG cold air for exterior talking scenes in the frozen wastes would have helped, and there’s no escaping that Polar Express feel during some of the train shots.
So, great cast, beautifully shot, terrific Patrick Doyle score and a nice nod to another Christie classic near the end. But not quite the masterpiece I’d hoped for.