Maria McQuillan, Contributor.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is one of Agatha Christie’s best mysteries. It has a plot so well written that it would be difficult to ham up such an excellent source material. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Kenneth Branagh does in his adaptation.
I’m going to start this review with the positives, because there are excellent moments throughout the film. Branagh’s films are never set in the contemporary, so period settings have always been his forte and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is no different. Costumes are fabulous, as are the sets and it’s obvious that little expense was spared on the wardrobe and sets within the movie. Little expense has also been spared on the cinematic visuals. The transition from Istanbul to the beginning of the train journey gives the audience a lush viewing experience but also helps create a sense of real atmosphere. We go from a busy city to snow covered peaks, and this sense of isolation, and literal chill for the characters translates well to the audience. The setting itself- the train- is excellently used throughout the film. We have a near constant slight rocking of the camera, which brings the audience further into the setting. Frequently we view scenes from outside the carriage, following the characters through the glass. This is a visual reminder for the audience of the setting, that works well, as certain things remain hidden and it is a visual sleight of hand used well to distract the audience from exposition. Camera work is also utilised to remind us of our setting. We have shots of the entire corridor to emphasize the length of the carriage, and overhead shots to show how close and small the cabins are. These shots are then juxtaposed with camera shots showing the snow-covered plains which lead into mountains, showing the vastness of nature, and how exposed and alone this train is. It gives a sense of almost claustrophobia, only heightened by the large cast.
The cast is another strong point in the movie. All the cast- bar Branagh- are excellent in their roles. Scenes are frequently stolen by Michelle Pfeiffer, who proves yet again, how natural an actor she truly is. Dame Judi Dench and Olivia Coleman are an excellently paired duo as the Princess and the companion, and considering the last movie I saw Penelope Cruz in was ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: on stranger tides,’ this role is an inestimable improvement. Willam Dafoe and Derek Jacobi’s roles play to their strengths as experienced actors who know how to provide value to their screen time. Johnny Depp is surprisingly good in this film. When I first saw that he was cast, I thought ‘here we go again’ and that his role, like many of his most recent films, was going to be over-acted and exaggerated, but I was really impressed with this solid, pared back performance.
Speaking of overacting and exaggerated, I’ll come to the negative: Kenneth Branagh. I’m a huge fan of his work, and was thrilled when he announced that he would be directing this. His Poirot was always going to be compared to its predecessors, and rather than taking this challenge and playing the best version of this character to date, he plays arguably its worst. Poirot is a character full of eccentricities, but rather than that being charming as it is in the books and in Suchet’s, Finney’s and Ustinov’s classic portrayals of Poirot, Branagh makes himself irritating. And when your central character becomes an irritant, he at times becomes totally superfluous. Branagh is great at directing but he seems unable to direct himself. He overshadows most of the best points of this movie. Scenes are added at the beginning to, I imagine, introduce the character in full before we get to the story. This, I believe was unnecessary and ruined the beginning of the movie. Poirot is a character that needs little introduction, and when I consider the age group of the cinemagoers that I saw this movie with, it further proves my point. The beginning is an attempt to lighten a movie that is one of Agatha Christie’s darker storylines, and considering all she wrote were murder mysteries, it’s dark. This attempt at humour creates in my mind a tonal issue, one only exacerbated by his setting of the first ‘act’ of the film, and basically still pervades another two thirds of the movie, and it barely works then. I didn’t laugh once during the whole film, and I heard few in the theatre except for Branagh’s last conversation. He seems to be more amused during the movie than we are.
Director: Kenneth Branagh.
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench.
Running Time: 1h 54m.