Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) just wanted a little rest and relaxation. The guy spends so much of his time using those deductive skills that have made him the world’s greatest detective to solve all sorts of crimes that he’s understandably just wanting some time to read his Charles Dickens books and get away from the world. But when he hops aboard his friend’s classy train, The Orient Express, well, it isn’t long before some foul crime rears its head, as those kinds of events tend to follow Poirot like a hungry dog. There’s been a murder aboard this train and after some convincing, Poirot puts his vacation on hold in order to solve this crime.
This won’t be an easy case to solve given the large number of potential culprits onboard the train. You’ve got Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), religious devotee Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), the murdered man’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the refined but haughty Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) just to name a few. Since “Murder on the Orinet Express” is based on an Agatha Christie novel, you know things won’t be resolving themselves in a conventional manner and that plenty of twists and turns are on their way. Poirot may have wanted a vacation, but what he’s gotten instead could be one of his most puzzling murder mysteries ever.
In translating “Murder on the Orient Express” from book form to its second theatrical feature film adaptation, screenwriter Michael Green finds himself stumbling over certain aspects of the story that don’t translate as well in movie form (and full disclosure, I’ve never read the original Agatha Christie novel). Most notably, I’d imagine that the 13 or so characters that comprise the cast of characters of this story can be better handled in book form where you have an infinite amount of space to jot down paragraphs detailing personality traits and whatnot, whereas the movie only has 114 minutes (and that’s counting the credits) to spare, so a number of characters just end up feeling inconsequential to the ballet, including an overly aggressive ballet dancer and a chipper chauffeur.
In terms of other story issues, there are also some problems in organically weaving in the crucial plot point of the Armstrong Murders, a fictional event that looms large over the plot that’s haphazardly introduced well over a third into the movie and feels like it could have been handled far better in establishing it as a primary plot development while two individual action scenes meant to make you think the killer has revealed themselves are also poorly executed. That having been said, while “Murder on the Orient Express” is rickety as it goes down its storytelling tracks, there are indeed pleasures to be found here.
Actually, to be entirely honest, the movie overall is pretty diverting even in the number of clunky storytelling spots. Director Kenneth Branagh chooses to go full-on grandiose in telling his murder mystery tale, with delightfully over-the-top dialogue being a regular fixture and all the characters getting decked out in the most lavish costumes imaginable. The decision to go bombastic is a smart one for this story since it feels like an appropriately theatrical execution for a heightened story that feels like the very definition of theatrical. Not only that, but it’s appreciated that screenwriter Michael Green doesn’t try to make Poirot an overly complex or realistic protagonist — he’s just a guy who’s good at solving murders and not overcomplicating beyond that shows a solid amount of thoughtful character-related brevity.
What also keeps the overly conventional proceedings mostly engaging — though admittedly not all that memorable — is the excellent cast assembled; they all just seem to be having a ball inhabiting one of Agatha Christies most famous stories. Most notably, Daisy Ridley cements herself as a real talented actor here, while Josh Gad proves to be able to inhabit more dramatic roles nicely and Willem Dafoe gets a few lines of dialogue towards the end of the motion picture that exudes such compelling wistfulness that you’re once again reminded of what a gem of an actor he is. You’ve got a bunch of talented actors engaging in full-tilt mystery movie mayhem under the direction of Kenneth Branagh which are all promising ingredients that add up “Murder on the Orient Express,” a motion picture that ends up being a mostly solid mystery tale that needed to get a clue when it comes to key parts of its narrative.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com