Film Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom, Bateman, Olivia Coleman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Original Release Date: November 2017

Review by Miriam Atkinson

Featuring a stunning all-star cast, Murder on the Orient Express is the latest adaption to be made of Agatha Christie’s arguably most famous crime novel.

The film made $352.8 million at the box office and the trailer for its sequel Death on the Nile featuring another impressive star-studded cast was released in summer 2020. Therefore I believe I am in the minority when I say I’m still not convinced that this is good film. Admittedly it is not a bad film but it’s not necessarily a good film either.

So, summary time: set in 1937 famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is armed with only his razor sharp wits and questionable facial hair (seriously try focusing on anything else when Branagh is on screen) when, on a three day train journey from Istanbul to London, a passenger is murdered. After an avalanche buries the train Poirot decides that he is the only man who can determine which of the stranded passengers is the culprit.

The first problem with this film is that it is too ‘hollywood’, too overly dramatic. Here’s an example of what I mean. In Agatha Christie’s novel the train gets stuck in a snowdrift. In the 2010 BBC adaptation staring David Suchet the train gets stuck in a snowdrift. In Branagh’s version the train is high in the mountains when an avalanche buries the tracks, partially derails the train and threatens to send it plummeting off the mountain. The section of railway tracks the train is stuck on is not built on the ground but on a high metal framework that creaks ominously throughout the film…threatening to break and send the train plummeting off the mountain. And naturally the potentially unstable metal framework will be used for a high intensity chase sequence later in the film despite said chase sequence not appearing in the novel. As I said, it’s too over-the-top, needlessly dramatic for my tastes and for me it doesn’t really add anything to the overall story.

Perhaps the most irritating problem with the film is Poirot himself or rather how Murder on the Orient Express chooses to show his detective genius. Let’s compare the film to the TV adaptation again. A piece of burnt paper is found next to the murdered passenger with only a few letters still visible. In the BBC adaptation these letters are the partial end of one word and the partial beginning of another. Suchet’s Poirot puzzles their meaning for a while and asks the other passengers their opinion. A clue from one passenger allows Poirot to work out the missing letters. In Branagh’s adaptation there are four or five random letters on the paper. Within moments Poirot is immediately able to work out what the original paragraph of text said and proceeds to spill forth a verbal waterfall of correct assumptions. Throughout the film there is rarely any evidence or explanation offered as to how Poirot is able to figure everything out other than his repeated statement of “I’m the great detective Hercule Poirot”. Even though I was already familiar with the story, for me the enjoyment of any form of crime drama comes from trying to solve the mystery along with the characters. I think the reason this film disappointed me so much was that, as a viewer, the mystery is impossible to work out because so many pieces of the puzzle are never offered to us – because this version of Poirot seemingly doesn’t need them.

Kenneth Brannagh in the 2017 film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express
David Suchet in the 2010 TV adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express

How Poirot is displayed as a character is another way in which Murder on the Orient Express differs from its TV counterpart and once again I do not believe the film was the more successful. The TV adaptation’s main theme is justice and it is made clear from the beginning that Poirot’s primary motivation in solving crimes is the pursuit of justice. I don’t know if this was intentional or not but from the film adaption it appeared to me that Poirot’s main motivation was proving how clever he is. Let’s look at the big reveal scenes in each adaption (I promise, no spoilers!). In Suchet’s version the characters are huddled together in the dining carriage with Poirot sitting among them. Due to the physical closeness of the characters and due to everyone being seated the scene begins with all the characters as equals – no one is higher or seated at a place of more importance than anyone else. When the truth is revealed Poirot is visibly shaken when the killer believes they are above justice. The betrayal is felt more harshly because everyone in the carriage is implied to be equal with the same morals and values as Poirot. In Branagh’s version the passengers are sat outside on a line of chairs facing Poirot while the detective himself is stood several metres away. It is very reminiscent of a theatre with Poirot being onstage commanding his audience’s (the passengers) attention. Poirot delivers his conclusions in a grand manner and is determined to show that he is cleverer than the culprit because he was able to solve the mystery. Unlike other iterations this Poirot also displays a cruel streak through his power and control over the passengers. Naturally the passengers are very cold outside on the snowy mountain but Poirot angrily refuses to let them leave and return to the train until he is finished speaking. To this day I am still confused about whether as a viewer I was supposed to like Branagh’s Poirot or not.

At the beginning of this review I said that I believe Murder on the Orient Express is neither good nor bad. What saves this film is its cast. As you can tell I’m not this film’s biggest fan but I’ll admit it is worth watching simply on the strength of its impressive cast. Everyone is given their moment to shine. My personal favourite out of this cast was Daisy Ridley who was particularly engaging as the refined yet strong-willed Governess. It was exciting to see her in her first role outside of the Star Wars Franchise. It was also great to see Josh Gad play a serious role and show more of his acting range since he is best known for comedic roles such as Gaston in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast and voicing Olaf in Frozen.

As I said before, I am clearly in the minority over this film. I wonder if I would have liked it more if Branagh had been portraying a brand-new detective rather than redoing something that has already been done more than once. Even though, as the protagonist, this is clearly Poirot’s story at this story’s heart are its characters and their interactions/relationships. It is an intimate, claustrophobic story and I personally don’t think it needed the big Hollywood treatment. By making the film adaptation so grandiose it takes a step back away from its characters and its heart.

Despite Murder on the Orient Express’ very clunky attempt to set up a sequel (“There’s been a death on the Nile!”) the trailer for Death on the Nile looks exciting. So for the moment I will be hopeful and curious to see how this film series will progress.

This review has been heavily rewritten from its original version. I was previously restricted by a shorter word limit. In this version I am able to give a more honest opinion of the film with the space to fully explain my views.

The original version of this review was published in the online magazine Cuckoo Review in November 2017

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