Murder? You sure he didn’t just fall asleep?
“Murder on the Orient Express”
By Jason Wiese
Like 2015 was the year of spy films, October and November seems to have been the season of murder mysteries. Considering the recent films that have earned this season the title that I just came up with, such as The Snowman, Suburbicon and this week’s Murder on the Orient Express, it has not been a very impressive season. While Suburbicon lacked any playful suspense and The Snowman lacked, well, anything that would constitute quality filmmaking, director Kenneth Branagh’s update of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel is rich in the same elegant style that made Christie’s work memorable and even manages to be a fun guessing game at times. However, it also manages to make one of the most iconic whodunits of all time feel pretty dull.
Branagh casts himself as the film’s hero, and one of Christie’s best known characters, Hercule Poirot, self-proclaimed as “probably the greatest detective in the world,” and with a worldwide fame to back it up. When a case in London requires him to flee his time in Jerusalem, he asks his train director friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) to book him a cabin for the next voyage of the Orient Express. Among the passengers joining him are a young British governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a devout religious missionary (Penelope Cruz), an aging princess (Judi Dench), a romantically dry divorcee (Michelle Pfieffer), a German professor (Willem Dafoe), a shady art dealer (Johnny Depp), his secretary (Josh Gad) and several others. But, to save room, I decided only to mention the top-billed cast.
On the morning of the second day of travel (or half an hour into the film’s runtime), an avalanche derails the Orient Express, leaving these traveling strangers temporarily stranded. To make matters worse, the victim of the film’s titular crime is discovered to be Depp’s character, named Edward Ratchett. With nowhere else to go, nothing else to do and a train full of suspects, Poirot reluctantly accepts the duty to figure out who among these strangers is the murderer.
I went into this film skeptical considering I have only seen three of Branagh’s many directorial screen adaptations (he makes a lot of adaptations, you know?) and two of them I have been massively disappointed by (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the first of the Chris Hemsworth-led Thor films). However, I also found reason to feel optimistic for this update given that I really enjoyed Branagh’s live action reimagining of Disney’s Cinderella in 2015 and also the fact that the film is backed by a cast of some of the best working actors today. But, as a friend had previously warned me, rarely can a cast save a movie and, this time, neither can Branagh.
I cannot tell which of his talents he applied to this film impressed me more, mainly because both of them still have their faults. As Poirot, Branagh is convincing enough as a far more polite Sherlock Holmes, but with the same highly intelligent, analytical mind and self-indulgent ego. Yet, the one aspect of Branagh’s performance that is also a debilitating flaw to the pace of the narrative is his cartoonishly forced French accent. I immediately wished that I could have simply pressed a button to flip on the subtitles. Branagh’s accent is so thickly applied that figuring out how to follow his plot-sustaining dialogue is a mystery all its own. One of the things that I was looking forward to about this movie was using it as an exercise to our inherent detective skills, but Branagh’s partially indecipherable accent do not seem to even want to give you the opportunity. In some respect, a mystery should keep the audience feeling lost, but by clever and entertaining uses of the unexpected, not by blandly presenting facts in the order they are discovered, but have them spoken in an accent that causes the audience to misunderstand every other word. Did he and Pierce Brosnan in The Foreigner go to the same vocal coach?
Even that would not be distracting to you, the filmmaking style is so overly ambitious, yet at an underwhelming pace, it creates an emotional disconnection at many moments in which the cast does not seem concerned with rescuing. At moments when I should be moved by a character’s testimony, I found more reasons to find them uninteresting. At times when I should have been on the edge of my seat, I found myself resting against it.
I will say that, having no prior exposure to the source material, I was impressed by the film’s revealing resolution, essentially for its message. If not for how slow and dull the road leading up to it is, I may have had a warmer reception. Unfortunately, Murder on the Orient Express failed to satisfy my appetite for a finally good crime thriller. Instead, I found it to be a sluggish, undercooked and unnecessary remake. At least I can say this had more of a story than Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.