Boasting an all-star international cast, Murder on the Orient Express (Branagh, 2017) slays with a luminous and stylish production, but somehow gets derailed away from the audience due to its wobbly writing, lackluster direction and haphazard editing.
Based on the Agatha Christie a.k.a. Queen of Mystery’s famous novel of the same name, Murder on the Orient Express follows the “who did it?” concept of jigsaw puzzle from pieces of clues here and there, as world-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) tries to solve a crime in the infamous train of the early 20th century Mesopotamia. The production design of the film is glowingly well-thought, kudos to its innovative interior camera work considering how difficult and tight the space is inside the set. The film manages to keep you claustrophobic and distant from reality, playfully showing the rigidness in the train, and the apathy of its exterior environment. Branagh truly created a world inside a moving train, with vast shots of snow outside as the galaxy where their world is untouchable.
The biggest issue the film dealt with is that it didn’t really know when to peak. A big chunk in the middle of the film felt like an overly prolonged interrogation with nothing deduced from any of the characters as everything was as one sided as Hercule Poirot’s mental monologue of trying to decipher the clues he’s seeing. That being said, the film didn’t highlight any of the major turning points that are crucial, especially with the clues Poirot has been getting. The film casually throws away clues here and there (the pipe cleaner, the handkerchief, the key, the kimono gown, etc.) as if he’s just going through a grocery list. Not being able to establish these vital details means not being able to establish the rest of the film at all. It’s hard to keep up the excitement when the film skips opportunities that could have been the chance to pump the adrenaline of the audience.
It is rather unfortunate how paper thin the characters were written. The film ended without really, truly letting us know who these characters are other than their individual casual introduction of 1 or 2 descriptive traits that meant nothing considering how their past lives are so thick and essential in determining the fate of the crime. The direction failed at letting us get inside these characters’ head, which is important in a mystery genre, as you try to choose sides on who did it and who didn’t. We weren’t given that thrill of choosing who our villain is, other than the tedious sit down interviews which felt like an oxymoron combination of rushed, but incredibly long at the same time.
The tonal language of the film is another reason why it felt so distant and cold. Let’s face it: who could understand 75% of what Hercule Poirot was saying? His unnecessarily outdated early-20th century transatlantic tone with an absolutely cartoonish performance by Kenneth Branagh did nothing but confuse the audience. The tone remained too loyal to the book, wherein it has forgotten that it’s already 2017. The language of the book is culturally relevant because it was written and published sometime in the mid-20th century. However, for a film to be released in the 21st century, a touch of modernity (especially with its language) is everything it needs to be more comprehensible and current.
That being said, Branagh’s Hercule Poirot felt like a caricature than an actual performance. The rest of the cast really did their best considering how thinly they were written, but ultimately, everyone is forgettable. Not a single character will linger to anyone’s threshold of imagination as we’ve only been given the smallest bites to chew from all of them.
The film’s ending is its sole redeeming feature. How the crime was explained is beautifully hemmed and sharply executed. The final interrogation scene, very reminiscent of The Last Supper, is the only straw of finally having the viewers at the edge of their seats. However, despite this, perhaps it’s too little, too late as it had already missed multiple opportunities for 2 long hours of engaging the audience on what the film tries to assert. The build up was so slow, that no matter how great it ended seems to no longer matter at that point.
Overall, Murder on the Orient Express’ intentions were crystal clear good, but the original source’s rich, eventful narrative and poignant characters seem to have overwhelmed an adaptation squeezed into 2 hours. It wanted to do everything where it ended up doing almost nothing. It wounded up wasting a lineup of golden cast, and the opportunity to truly introduce the mystery genre to the audience once again.