Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has been made, remade and remade again sometimes under a different title, the plot remains the same. If anyone can breathe life into a genre that they simply don’t make any more it would be Kenneth Branagh. Old fashioned, murder mystery, who-dunnits are now more of a staple of television than in the theaters. In Murder on the Orient Express Branagh directs and stars as the “greatest detective in the world” Hercule Poirot. The film opens with Poirot at the Wailing Wall in Israel solving the mystery of a stolen artifact that has Jew, Arabs and Christians at each other’s throats, ready for a full-scale riot.
This time around, Branagh has done such a good job in reimaging Poirot that I was intrigued by this character wherein other versions, Poirot was a bit of a bore. I am not diminishing the other actors who have played Poirot, but to be honest, some of these films are on PBS where they fit right in with the rest of the stale programming they put forth. Not all of it, mind you, but a good portion of it, anyway. Branagh’s Poirot is clever, with a very dry sense of humor, brutally honest and admittedly human flaws. I only Branagh had devoted some of this time to the list of suspects on the Orient Express, this film might have been something special. As it stands now, Murder on the Orient Express is serviceable and that is about all it is.
This is a paint-by-numbers retelling of a story that has been done before and better with the 1974 version which starred Albert Finney as Poirot. There are very little surprises in this latest remake which is too bad. Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is a rather strikingly beautiful film, visually. The costumes, the production values and cinematography are all first rate. The story is the same as are the list of suspects but the film rather than develop characters and give insights into who might be the killer in a natural sense, spends most of its time on scene after scene with Poirot questioning the suspects. Since none of them are given much to do except look suspicious, the film becomes one note, repeating over and over again. Branagh does what he can to keep the scenes interesting as Poirot but after a while, I grew restless.
Poirot and Eddie Ratchett (Johnny Depp) have a couple of good scenes together. Ratchett is a gangster hiding out from other mobsters whom he bilked on art forgeries and asks Poirot to protect him. Poirot is polite at first but rebukes him in a classic way.He leaves no ambiguity of his dislike of Ratchett. When one of the passengers is murdered, however, Poirot is asked to find the killer. This is a train full of passengers, all of whom are suspect in one way or another, but rather than have some fun with the material, director Branagh and scriptwriter Michael Green simply tell the same old story that has been told before. You can have fun with this material and still be somewhat faithful to the story, but here it is simply assembly line filmmaking.
This is what is so disappointing about this version of Murder on the Orient Express. This is a nice looking film but hollow and empty. By the end of the film, I didn’t care who the killer was and if you are familiar with previous versions of this story and have read the story by Agatha Christie, there are no surprises here, at all. What you see is what you get. Michael Green is a terrific screenwriter and in looking at his resume, his only disappointment was the Ryan Reynolds version of The Green Lantern. Green has been knocking them out of the ballpark this year with hits like Logan and Blade Runner 2049. Here his script is fairly routine as is Branagh’s direction. Every element of this story has been repackaged and sold as something new and fresh but as you will see, there is nothing new or fresh in this film.
The cast is sufficient with Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman and Willem Dafoe all providing adequate performances in fulfilling their requirements to the story. I did enjoy, however, Patrick Doyle’s rather eloquent score that greatly enhances the film and in fact, kept me interested throughout most of the proceedings. Branagh is so good as Poirot, too that I was interested even though I could see where they were going with the material. I even figured out who the thief was in the opening mystery before Poirot explains his findings. Playing it safe is modus operandi for this film.
Murder on the Orient Express is not an awful film. In fact, if you have never seen or read this story and know nothing of the ending, you will have fun with this film. This is harmless and safe storytelling. There is even a reference to Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile which hints at another remake that might be coming to theaters. I hope they take some chances on that story more so than they did with this one.
Murder on the Orient Express – **1/2 out of 5
Murder on the Orient Express – Rated PG-13 for some brief violence, language and sexual innuendo.
Murder on the Orient Express – Run Time is 115 minutes
Murder on the Orient Express is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations nearest you.