MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Is a film really only as good as its screenplay? Well, films are visual mediums to tell stories, so it seems like a compelling story with strong characters would be the only way to keep things interesting. The “visual medium” part of that definition is key, though. Screenplays are just the foundation. Similarly, a house needs to have a solid foundation, but what truly makes it a great house? It’s the way it’s built, the way it’s decorated, which materials are used, and who lives in that house is what gives it its true meaning of a home. Still, you better make sure that foundation is solid enough to not bring everything down with it. 

In 1934 Jerusalem, self-proclaimed “greatest detective in the world” Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is looking to take a vacation after cracking a recent case. However, he receives a telegram requesting him to return to London for a new job, in which his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) offers him a seat on the Orient Express. Getting ready for a nice three-day ride, it soon turns hectic when a passenger is found murdered in their cabin. Wanting to prove who the killer is before they arrive in London, Poirot begins his intense investigation to solve The Murder on the Orient Express. 

I’ve never read Agatha Christie’s classic novel, in which this film, and many others I’ve not seen, are based, so I was experiencing this story for the first time. Murder mysteries are lot of fun, especially when their narratives are narrowed down to a confined setting. It makes the audience part of the investigation more intimate, where you feel like Poirot interrogating these people and trying to figure out their true motives. After the murder in the first act gets set into motion, a lot of the beats consist of Poirot going from suspect to suspect and asking them questions. These moments where the suspects reveal their backstories are the only time they really get any depth. When more information is divulged, the logic surrounding the murder gets more and more outlandish and contrived. I was enjoying the mystery, but my suspension of disbelief was being pushed pretty far by the end. However, seeing a super detective at work and trying to solve a crime is very exciting. 

Although the quick pacing and structure of the film didn’t quite give the characters the depth they needed, the performances from everybody are so excellent that they completely elevate their characters and the story. Not a single actor is wasted here, perfectly cast for the parts they need to play. Branagh and his magnificent mustache (it deserves a Best Supporting Actor nom, for sure) command the screen as Poirot from the first scene. He’s eccentric, clever, witty, and uncompromising in his pursuit of justice. While he’s an over the top kind of figure who’s very funny, you can still tell how seriously he takes his work. You may think he’s goofy, but you certainly don’t want him on to you. When Poirot finally thinks he’s solved the case, all of those eccentricities are cast aside and he’s all business. While most films where directors cast themselves as the lead comes off as ego stroking, this all feels like Branagh genuinely wanting to bring this story and character to life. The great character and his perfect performance really save the film. Even the up and comers like Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad are able to hold their own against acting juggernauts like Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Willem Dafoe, and Penélope Cruz. Michelle Pfeieffer is one of the standouts here, giving possibly a career defining performance. It’s almost like she actually became a different person in this role. After this and mother!, it’s truly delightful to see an actress as good as she is having a resurgence this year.  

There’s an old Hollywood feel to everything that I very much enjoyed. It feels very classical, not just due to the time period, but also because of the tone. Even though we’re dealing with a murder, there’s this somewhat whimsical atmosphere to it. The crimes don’t really feel you with dread, but more with excitement to see what happens next. I was completely immersed in the film due to the terrific production design and camerawork. Branagh keeps the confines of the train visually interesting with some very creative framing, making you feel like you’re right on the hunt with him. There’s just some truly gorgeous moments, especially in the finale, which features some incredible staging. If there was one thing that unfortunately broke my immersion, though, it was Patrick Doyle’s musical score. It wasn’t bad per se, but it always felt at odds with the film and didn’t work at all. It did nothing but take away from the scenes. Most lackluster scores end up being just forgettable, but this one completely stood out in how it feels like it belongs in a different film. 

Perhaps since I was completely unfamiliar with the source material and didn’t know what to expect, I actually found Murder on the Orient Express to be a fun little detective thriller. While there were maybe a bit too many characters to keep track of and the conclusion got a bit too crazy, it’s the most immersive film I’ve seen in quite some time. Isn’t that what films are all about? Immersion? Well, with this one, the foundation is just solid enough, but the house is pretty gorgeous. I’ll take it.

6.5/10

1 Comment
  1. your writing is absolutely amazing!!! I saw the movie thru your eyes in a totally different way. thank you! I always look forward to your reviews

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