Movie Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

There’s a moment toward the end of “Murder on the Orient Express” common in most detective stories. The sleuth, in this case the mustached Belgium Hercule Poirot, lines up our cast of suspects and goes through all the possibilities until finally reaching the big reveal. It’s a moment that should be filled with suspense and intrigue. This is the crescendo, the apex of the movie meant to send your heart pounding with anticipation. Yet, the movie never takes you to that place. You’ll more likely be checking the time rather than leaning on the edge of your seat. That lack of any real tension is not just a problem with the film’s most crucial scene, it’s a problem with the movie itself.

The best-selling mystery novel by Agatha Christie, by which the movie is based, has been adapted multiple times before, most notably in 1974 by director Sidney Lumet. That version boasted an all-star cast of actors bringing a degree of prestige to otherwise pulpy material and seems to be the same strategy by with Kenneth Branagh forged this new remake. The Shakespearan trained actor/director, of course, takes center stage as the quirky detective Poirot. It’s a roll Branagh clearly had fun with, taking every possible moment to bring out the character’s ticks, as well as show off a particularly over-the-top mustache. The only aspect of the performance that Branagh never really nails is the accent, making the character appear at times more of a cartoon character than an actual human being.

However, while Branagh gives himself plenty of moments to chew scenery, the remaining all- star cast gets little, if anything, to do. The story itself is constructed like a giant game of “Clue”, throwing a variety of different characters into the mix with the suspicion of anyone at any point being a suspect. Among the all star cast are Penelope Cruz, William Dafoe, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Of all the cast, Pfieffer and Gad make the biggest impressions, though for completely different reasons. Pfieffer seems to add a jolt of energy every time she is on screen. In a sea of movie stars, she’s the only one making a point to remind you how good she is. Ironically, Gad’s performance stands out because it is so underplayed. The Broadway star isn’t performing to the back of the room like he usually does, which helps him slip further into his character than nearly any other role he’s had at the movies.

“Murder on the Orient Express” wants to be a big Hollywood ensemble film but never gives it’s actors the moment to play off each other in a way that would make it truly great. Movies like this should be a battle royal with each member of the cast trying to outperform each other in a competative ring. That’s essentially what Quentin Tarantino was going for in his last movie, “The Hateful Eight”. The movie had a similar Agatha Christie-like narrative with a group of suspicious strangers being cooped up in a single space. You learn a lot about what that movie did right by watching Branagh’s film. He never takes the time to build characters or even tension in the way Tarantino did. The movie needs to clip along too quickly to give us a moment to breath or take in the situation.

“Orient Express” should have the makings of a classic Hitchcock film but here the story plays out like an elaborate version of dress-up. The plot and clues are not overly complicated but they’re so breezed over that it’s hard to keep straight who is the top suspect and what these people’s secrets are. By the time you reach that big reveal, mentioned earlier, you’re likely to roll your eyes because Branagh hasn’t done the work to build the this case on screen, let alone add any atmosphere to let you know what is at stake. I’m told by those who’ve read the original novel, or seen the ’74 movie version, that the ending doesn’t normally land with such a thud. Going in blind, I couldn’t help but groan in the film’s final moments.

For those simply seeking a lavish Hollywood production with big stars, “Murder on the Orient Express” might be money well spent. There’s certainly a lot of production value on display and care taken in the details of characters’ cloths or China plates by which they eat off of. However, all this feels trimming without a tree. The film is all icing, elaborate and glamorous, there just is no cake to hold it up.

Rating: ★ ★ ½