The 400-Word Review: Murder on the Orient Express
By Sean Collier
November 9, 2017
To its credit, “Murder on the Orient Express” changes genres very gradually.
At the beginning of the film, it is pure comedy; as the iconic detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, also the film’s director) reasons out the solution to a case with dramatic flourishes, awkward mannerisms and a moment of determined slapstick, the clear implication is that this adaptation will lean fully into the farcical side of Agatha Christie’s story.
By the end, Poirot unravels another mystery with fury, distaste and despair. The movie’s final scenes, in addition to laying groundwork for a sequel, depict a somber and affected Poirot contemplating the misery he has uncovered.
In between, the comedy slowly melts away and gravity takes hold. It is a smooth transition.
Was it a good idea to switch genres? No, probably not. But it doesn’t make too much of a difference.
Murder on the Orient Express is like most of Christie’s works; there’s a group of strangers, then some death happens, and someone has to unravel the mystery. Taking after the Oscar-nominated 1974 version of the film, this adaptation packs that roster of strangers with accomplished and recognizable performers: Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr. and more. All are good to great, toeing the line between melodrama and scenery-chewing; it is a precipice upon which Christie’s stories thrive.
Branagh’s direction is quite effective at dramatic shots on and around the titular train. The movie is a visual feast; lovers of period finery could watch the movie on mute and still be consistently dazzled. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is also worthy of praise; with the exception of a few shots that expose the visual effects, it is a great movie to look at.
Branagh is less capable of maintaining the thread of the plot, though; those not intimately familiar with the story will have some difficulty remembering who is who. The whole of the second act consists of interviews with, and revelations about, each suspect; if you’re not taking notes, you’ll need to resign yourself to drifting along and waiting for the inevitable recap at the end.
It’s uneven, truncated and tonally odd. But why complain? It’s also gorgeous, fun and evocative. Lovers of early-century mystery and intrigue will sink into Murder on the Orient Express with ease and eagerness; general audiences, meanwhile, will be more than entertained.
My Rating: 7/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark