It’s the early 1930s. Following a life of heartbreak, loss, and love, a writer finds herself aboard the Orient Express headed from England towards Istanbul and later Baghdad. In a hotel room in the heart of Turkey, she pens a mystery-crime novel set aboard the famous train. Murder on the Orient Express would go on to see her already rising star shine brighter than ever before. Two decades short of a century later, Agatha Christie’s novels still demand the attention of their readers, with generations upon generations growing up to the tales of Inspector Hercule Poirot, the main character of the majority of Christie’s body of work.
With such a revered repertoire, it comes as no surprise that 2017 brought a brand new remake of the film — and overdue potential for a series of films about the quirky Poirot’s adventures — with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring in the feature. Of the inspector’s most famous cases, Murder on the Orient Express follows him as he boards the Orient Express in search of some rest from his work, only to be greeted by harsh weather conditions. Things quickly go south upon the discovery of a dead body when the train is stopped by an avalanche.
Often times when names like Dame Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, and Penelope Cruz sign on to join a movie, they usually command the screen. The unity of these actors and actresses in supporting roles in the same film, then, alongside newer faces like Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley, becomes both exciting and daunting, especially in the face of a film’s lead. Such is the case with Murder on the Orient Express.
Kenneth Branagh charges himself with the job of leading the film with the presence of these household names. Not a stranger to accolades himself, the actor expectedly delivers a mostly great performance, but what makes his turn a substantial one is the fact that he was able to stand out despite the presence of such powerful veterans (who, of course, excel). Branagh’s Poirot is quirky and full of interesting mannerisms, much like the book character, and Branagh translates them to the screen well.
Where the film goes wrong, however, is its holistic characterisation of Poirot. Despite being well-acted, the character is built to be a god-like figure (noticed that strange Last Supper setting towards the end?). He is put on too high a pedestal from the beginning and rarely, if ever, does he come down from it. He is written to be almost flawless, widening the gap between him and the audience. Even the cliché sob story that is introduced is often alluded to, but never explored.
The relationship between audience and character becomes key here, especially because this is a mystery. With whodunits, it is of vital importance to view the film through the audience’s eyes, and to use a character as the medium to do so. In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot seems to crack ridiculously random codes on sight in a way that’s completely unrealistic, like burning paper to find a warning note, figuring out that the note lacks letters, and solving the puzzle (in a laughably unlikely connection) within a minute of finding it. This omniscient portrait of Poirot that the film portrays makes it difficult to place oneself in Poirot’s shoes.
Instead of letting the viewer slowly discover things for him/herself, Poirot nearly narrates the story. And in a murder mystery, that’s exactly what one is not supposed to do. And that’s also partly to do with the run-time of the film. With over 12 characters that are substantial to the central plot of the film and a story as complex and layered as this murder mystery, the film could have easily been closer to three hours — a risk, but one that would have definitely paid off, and one that is made easy by virtue of the genre of the film. What cinemagoers are treated to is a contrived, very rushed adaptation of the book that spoils the mystery for its own viewers.
The film excels at its technical execution. It’s shot and edited beautifully and makes great use of the different settings to mold the atmosphere of the scenes. What elevates this further is the aesthetic caliber of the film. From production design to costume design, if there’s one thing Branagh’s film does masterfully, it’s making the viewer feel like they need to travel by train at some point in their lives (I know I do!).
While many of the individual elements of Murder on the Orient Express are to be praised, the result as a whole fails to impress due to the bad adaptation and characterisation of its lead. Still, the potential of the film could drive an entire Poirot series (one that is quite overdue), should it be better planned and written. If that all comes together, the Poirot series could turn into quite a successful franchise — and there is definitely a lack of one in the market right now.