At the end of Neil Simon’s comedic spin on the detective genre, “Murder by Death,” the classic detectives are given a comeuppance. The frustrations of the average reader/viewer are taken out as it is explained to the detectives that they’ve been cheating with their surprise endings for years, doing things like withholding information, introducing characters at the end, that sort of thing. Watching Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise spectacular new take on “Murder on the Orient Express,” one very much feels like they are experiencing the exact type complaint offered in “Murder by Death.”
We’ll get there, keep reading.
The new film, which features a screenplay by Michael Green based on the classic Agatha Christie novel, does not simply feature a star-studded cast, it is an amazing, kinetic experience. Branagh’s direction keeps things, unlike the train in the title, rumbling along. One feels the incredible claustrophobia of the train experience, particularly once it is stopped by snow, but Branagh still continually surprises the audience with camera setups and scene locations. We may be trapped with the train passengers, but that doesn’t mean every interrogation takes place in a tiny space.
Branagh himself is regularly front and center, playing the famed Hercule Poirot, and he does a spectacular job as the Belgian detective, hitting the exact right balance between humor and gravitas. This is unmistakably Poirot.
The rest of the cast is equally tremendous. This large ensemble includes Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Lucy Boynton, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer, and more. It is a whole lot of characters—or suspects, if you prefer—but each feels unique and when the group is assembled, they are a wonder.
This is a movie where everything feels perfect. It isn’t just the cast and the characters they play, the costumes are incredible, the Orient Express itself is amazing, the scenery is outstanding, and Patrick Doyle’s score is equally excellent. Branagh and company have perfectly put the audience into the mid-1930s and the world of Hercule Poirot.
And then, a little bit it falls apart.
As Poirot unravels the mystery and tries to work out the murderer, it becomes clear that there is more to the murder than it initially may seem. Slowly things build. Poirot is confused by the clues, but is attempting to work it out. Suddenly, however, the end is upon us – Poirot has gathered the suspects together in order to out the truth and begins to reconstruct things in a way that feels more than a little foolish. The audience may know some of what is coming by hearing the characters’ discuss their various stories earlier in the film, but there is not enough of Poirot working it through. When Poirot does offer up the correct solution to the case it is blindingly fast, and perhaps with a piece or two of information that wasn’t in the movie earlier – it is so rushed that it is hard to be sure.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the movie spends so much time establishing these characters, of letting folks like Judi Dench be fantastic, that it spends too little time on some of the necessary details of the plot. Consequently what we end up with is a tale that is both hurried in its conclusion and at the same time manages to feel obvious as soon as one knows enough about enough of the characters. We are missing too much of the working of Poirot’s little gray cells.
Despite this disappointment, however, there is something fantastic that remains in Branagh’s adaption of the novel. This “Murder on the Orient Express” is a throwback in terms of the genre, but it is beautifully brought up to date in all its other aspects. It makes one long for a return of the whodunit and, who knows, maybe we’ll get to see this Poirot again down the line. We are definitely left with that impression when the credits roll.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox