Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
Runtime: 114 Minutes
Kenneth Branagh’s directorial works have been pretty eclectic for several years since his verge into making more mainstream blockbuster features, in contrast to his more notable and revered adaptations of Shakespeare plays. He’s a very visually loud and pointed filmmaker who lends himself best to works of exaggerated circumstance or emotional ricochet.
Murder on the Orient Express is an adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie detective novel featuring her most famous protagonist Hercule Poirot, who is here also portrayed by Branagh. A sort of chamber piece of elaborate deduction techniques and crisscrossing accounts and motivations from multiple characters, it’s actually quite a reserved scenario that really should have stayed as such in translation.
There’s a problem at hand that while the storyline itself and source material has been mined over through adaptation repeatedly – most notably the 1974 version by Sidney Lumet – Branagh’s version doesn’t really bring much else to the table other than a star-studded line-up of briskly used actors, and the occasional moment of contemporary commentary that feels obligatory given the more multicultural cast on display.
For the most part, the cast acquits themselves well with their roles, even given that for all the time we spend with them they are only allotted single scenes in which to really explore their characters before the climactic revelations. Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe and Josh Gad are of particular note while Johnny Depp proves the bewildering marketing allure even given his limited screen time. Branagh is also having fun with the role of the Belgian detective, sporting a moustache that is so large and ridiculous it could be used to steer a small sea vessel.
But that’s really an embodiment of what’s gone wrong. The production design of everything is extravagant and bright from costumes to place settings and dessert trays, but it’s a pretty distraction from the fact that there isn’t a great deal of willpower going on behind the camera. Michael Green’s screenplay moves both too fast to savour character beats and too slow to get to the point of certain exchanges, and for all the cinematic trickery in the world courtesy of collaborator Haris Zambarloukos’ photography it makes certain shots, sequences and reveals seem meaningless because there’s little reason or clarification behind certain decisions.
Murder on the Orient Express has a few exciting scenes and a well-sold cast, but it only draws attention to the empty artifice of it all and the same overblown theatrics that Branagh is notorious for. His talents are demanded by more thunderous pictures, and this feels like an aesthetic miscalculation by trying to broaden the potential audience.