Review: Murder on the Orient Express
As I plotted down in the backstabbing, squeaky chair in the mostly empty movie theater, and focused my eyes on the screen, I found myself entering a world of large, twirling mustachios, vintage charm, bygone prejudices, and a casual atmosphere where the mystery feels safe and inconsequential. I quickly realized that a soft couch with a warm cup of coffee was the perfect venue for this small, teatime murder caper.
Actor/director Kenneth Branagh feels right at home adding this Agatha Christie adaptation to his repertoire of films based on Shakespearian plays and literary classics, including Hamlet, Henry V, and Frankenstein, in addition to Thor, Cinderella, Jack Ryan, and a little known thriller about reincarnation called Dead Again. This time, Branagh chameleons himself into the role of Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who’s not only been the focus of countless Christie novels but has been portrayed by the likes of Albert Finney, Alfred Molina, Tony Randall, and Orson Welles. Poirot has also been immortalized in a very popular British series, which ended its run in 2013.
I myself am amongst the uninitiated, having never read Murder on the Orient Express or any other Agatha Christie novel for that matter, and have never seen a prior adaptation nor aforementioned series. However, I don’t think it’s required to read a book before seeing the film version. Blasphemy, I know, but books and movies are two separate entities and homework shouldn’t be required to form an opinion on a self-contained story (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some producer or studio exec had conjured the idea of a Poirot/Christie franchise in the back of their minds).
But I digress. Branagh is whimsical and captivating as Poirot, who, in this form at least, is depicted as an eccentric fellow who desires solitude and eggs of a particular size. Hercule is a man who accidentally steps on manure and then steps in it with his other foot to keep things copacetic. He’s detail oriented and has a boundless intellect of the fictional variety.
Poirot is surrounded by a cast of colorful characters portrayed by a cast of wellregarded actors. Johnny Depp is restrained and seedy as the victim, Mr. Ratchett, a distrustful man, even in death. Judi Dench is wonderfully contentious as ever as Princess Dragomiroff. Willem Dafoe plays around with an Austrian accent as a prejudiced private detective. Michelle Pfeiffer is flirtatious and determined as a woman hellbent on finding a man. Daisy Ridley is intellectual, perhaps brave, and appears to be hiding something, but is it the romantic feelings she harbors in a time it was considered uncouth? And then there’s Josh Gad, who I now see in a new light. His turn here is akin to watching Dan Fogler in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. My previous experiences with Gad’s performances have been in films like Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, and The Wedding Ringer, light and fluffy roles. So, naturally, I’ve only seen him as a comedic actor until this point. Here he plays a serious drunkard, a man you couldn’t trust further than you could throw him. His performance won’t earn him an Oscar, but it does show there could be life for him after Olaf.
Poirot’s one-on-ones with the suspects are among the best scenes in the movie. These are the moments where the characters (and the actors playing) truly come alive. Each and every one of them oozes of suspicion and yet each and every one of them seems innocent, even if just barely.
Oh no, I won’t give away the ending. I did guess it and I don’t say that in a smug ”Ha! I’m better than the movie!” kind of way. If you’re thinking right, you’re probably going to at some point guess the killer in any murder mystery because you probably suspect every one, even in the ones where it’s all make believe and the main character imagined it. That’s just part of the mental process that comes with watching mysteries. Everyone’s a suspect and guessing is all part of the fun. It was truly a fluke that I got the right answer. My mind at one point opened a door I thought was wrong but later turned out to be right. Even if it is predictable, I don’t think it hinders the movie. It might even strengthen it, because in a second viewing, you get to breathe in the performances even more, looking for connections and foreshadowing glares.
Murder on the Orient Express is a calm affair and in that regard, it isn’t very suspenseful in nature nor will it have you on the edge of your seat. However, it is an actor’s movie as is the case with most of Branagh’s films. It’s all about watching the performances. That’s where the film comes alive and delights the most. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll inspire you to grow a twirler of all twirlers, a fuzzy monolith above your lip, a mustache of your very own. Now, how about some tea?