Trailers are something I tend to avoid as a rule, but I found myself unable to hide from Murder on the Orient Express‘ advertising campaign during my excursions to the cinema. Frankly, it had me considerably underwhelmed with all of the flashy, neon titles and scoring courtesy of Imagine Dragons, and I expected overproduced mediocrity. Maybe it’s because I set the bar so low mentally, but, when I finally sat down to give it a chance, Murder on the Orient Express ended up being one of the most surprising, refreshing, and enjoyable times I’ve had in the cinema this year, even if it has some glaring flaws.
Based on the Agatha Christie novel, renowned detective Hercule Poirot finds his holiday unceremoniously interrupted when a grisly murder occurs on his train, leaving him the only one who can feasibly crack the case. It’s a classic Agatha Christie setup, and the film owes a lot to her brilliance for its backbone. The mystery at the core is engaging from beginning to end, even in the film’s slower moments, and it comes to a surprising and satisfying conclusion (at least for me, as someone unfamiliar with the text and previous adaptations). The characters also stand as one of the films strengths, filled with intricacies and interweaving backgrounds (though sometimes a bit conspicuous in their motives). They’re bolstered by solid performances overall by the film’s star-studded cast, minus a couple of decidedly underwhelming turns in some supporting roles. Willem Dafoe stood out as a suspicious, serious, and off-colour German professor as well as Johnny Depp in one of his most restrained performances in years (yes, a compliment).
The real standout of the show, and the centre of any discussion of the film really, has to be director and star Kenneth Branagh. His vision and realisation of the character of Poirot is the film’s cornerstone, the vessel through which every sense of joy, despair, and contemplation is channeled to the viewer; everyone else is just a ghost of Poirot’s perception relayed to the viewer. In this regard, Branagh’s performance is a resounding success, full of heart and life and humanity. Honestly, I love the character of Poirot, and he’s thus far my favourite I’ve seen on screen this year (apart from Robert Pattinson‘s Connie Nikas in Good Time). There’s a endearing, earnest quality to Poirot’s championing of justice, a sincere benevolence to his character that’s unusual in contemporary cinema, and his flaws that are revealed don’t detract from these qualities while making him ultimately exceptionally human, embracing the grey areas in spite of his black-and-white nature. In a cinematic world full of broken people and brooding heroes, Poirot stands out shimmeringly.
Branagh’s direction, however, doesn’t quite match his acting, teetering back and forth relentlessly between moments of inspiration punctuated by incompetency. Perhaps that’s a bit too harsh a word, but mistakes become far more glaring and frustrating when they follow genuinely creative and crafty sequences, such as a delightful tracking shot following Poirot as he enters the Orient Express, introducing us to the train and guests before culminating in a horrific cut to wedge in a poorly blocked piece of dialogue. The whole film is this kind of journey, though typically less egregious and maddening as that particular instance. Arresting images, thoughtful presentation, and clever humour oppose lazily rendered CGI establishing shots and dialogue montages in the second act that underline Branagh’s inability to make interviews cinematic and compelling, or at least lack of understanding of how that’s meant to be achieved over the course of a full runtime.
There’s certainly a yin and a yang to the film in that sense, a balance that would make Poirot proud. The scales do tip in the favour of positivity for me in the end, but, after contemplation of the film’s flaws, I can’t help but wonder what a master director like Sidney Lumet brings to the table in his version of the film. Considering that and how most of the film’s strengths are rooted in the story and characters as they exist on paper, I’m thinking that perhaps my enjoyment is simply the result of my ignorance.