On one hand, Murder on the Orient Express is a story so basic with an ending so known at this point that I don’t even have to summarize what’s going on because basically everyone else knows and because of that it makes impossible to justify doing yet another big budget version.
On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh’s mustache has a mustache.
At a fundamental level, Murder on the Orient Express really only ever amounts to a Kenneth Branagh vanity project that some famous folks agreed to come along on. Branagh wanted to play Hercule Poirot, 20th Century Fox wanted a live-action fall 4-quadrant hit, and everyone else wanted a paycheck.
But you know, there have absolutely been worse reasons to make a movie.
I think it’s become apparent I’m of two minds on this movie, a kind of weird split drawn between my critic brain and the lizard part of my brain that just wants to be entertained. So let’s argue between them.
I said that this was a vanity project for Branagh to play Hercule Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express fundamentally conveys what must have so deeply appealed to him about playing it. Branagh’s Poirot is an absolute and total delight to watch. Not just the mustache (which is truly something else), but the absolute exacting confidence with which he plays the character. It steers away from the antisocial genius portrayals of characters like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and makes him someone simply too connected with humanity and able to see deep into it, someone too connected with the rights and wrongs and hearts of the world. He’s the best thing by a mile and carries the movie at basically all times.
But you know, a Branagh vanity project doesn’t necessarily mean he has to do everything, not at his level. Branagh also directs Murder on the Orient Express and he certainly does able work, especially with his actors, always a specialty for a director like Branagh. But outside of some great landscape shots (thanks to the 65mm he shoots on), the film feels just too inert and stagy. It’s big-budget but it seems like it just allowed them to use a lot of CGI and green-screen to make a film that’s directed around people in a false background, a train that never actually exists or becomes a location for this story. A director who might have not needed to spend so much time in front of the camera may have been a better hand for this one.
But hey, it’s not all about Branagh. This is a cast of great actors and most of them are having a good enough time to keep watchable. Michelle Pfeiffer is having a hell of a comeback year and she’s definitely the stand-out in this one, but plenty of props deserved to the cast for putting in the effort here.
It’s just a shame that they don’t really have more to work with. The biggest problem here is that with a known quantity story like Murder on Orient Express, it’s really gonna live or die on the substance of the characters leading you through the subterfuge to make you forget you know the answer.
Yet minus Pfeiffer, no one really gets too much substance. A few big scenes here and there, but I’d be hard-pressed to recall anything about them besides the plot movements they go through. It’s hard to stand out when you’ve just not got much to work with. It’s all fine and enjoyable in the moment, but nothing leaves an impression.
Also Johnny Depp continues to be just slightly too much at any given time and Leslie Odom Jr. and Olivia Colman are both great actors who are criminally underserved in this movie.
But speaking of the already-known plot, I will say that even if the characters don’t quite nail it, screenwriter Michael Green handles the narrative fairly well. The twists and turns all feel fairly natural and the lack of audience clues feel like a feature (only Poirot can piece it together) rather than an accident. It’s easy enough to follow along and enjoyable enough to watch. It’s old-fashioned and slow in just the right way, along for a ride but never feeling overly modern in a way a story like this should be.
Though, you know, maybe there should have been some updates. Outside of a lesson about justice, it feels like the thematics here are never really dug into or updated in any real way. There’s honestly just nothing new here. The film brings up race a few times but throws it right out the door about halfway through. No real new ideas or morals or stories are injected into the text, it’s too faithful for all that.
After all that, what do I end up actually thinking of Murder on the Orient Express? It’s got great actors, but no real characters for them to play. An engaging plot that we already know with the ability to make you forget you know it but nothing under the surface to find new. A vanity project that maybe was a little too vain.
I think it all amounts to something perfectly enjoyable but nothing special. A rainy Sunday afternoon, a half-watched TBS movie while you’re preparing dinner, and a pretty agreeable movie for everyone to see during the holidays.
I had a good time! I liked it! But there’s the talent here to aspire to more.