These days, murder mysteries are confined to the smaller screen of television, simply because the genre isn’t suited to the spectacle of cinema. But with audiences growing ever tired of the action franchises that flood theatres, 20th Century Fox has sensed an opportunity to capitalise on the public’s apathy in the form of a classic whodunnit.
Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is returning to London, having just solved the case of a missing relic in Jerusalem. To complete his journey home, Poirot is travelling on the Orient Express, a luxurious cross-continental steam train that operates between Istanbul and Paris. Plenty of wealthy, eccentric individuals are sharing the journey, but nobody stands-out quite like Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a reformed criminal who now sells oriental rugs.
Part way into the train’s journey, Ratchett is murdered in his sleep, stabbed several times by an unknown assailant. Given his deductive skills, it seems only logical that Poirot should be made responsible for finding the killer, a task which shall be far from easy – even for this seasoned sleuth. And with the locomotive having been caught in a snowdrift the previous evening, Poirot fears that the perpetrator is still on-board, and may strike again.
This isn’t the first time that Murder on the Orient Express, based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, has been adapted for the screen, with Sidney Lumet having provided his own take on the material back in 1974. The story has also twice been shown on television, most famously as an episode of ITV’s long-running series Poirot, with David Suchet in the title role. All previous adaptations have been faithful to the source material, a trend that continues here, with this version retaining the 1930s setting and a majority of the characters.
Responsible for the latest incarnation of the famous story is Kenneth Branagh who, in addition to playing the central protagonist, handles directorial duties. Aside from his intriguing use of cinematography – it’s not often one sees a bird’s-eye view of a character’s actions – there’s nothing particularly outlandish about Branagh’s work, using instead a solid, steady hand to tell the tale. Indeed, his film seems decidedly old-school, akin to the tentpole releases of yesteryear that would draw audiences in with an all-star cast.
Speaking of which, the excellent cast of Murder on the Orient Express reads like a Who’s Who of the acting world, featuring industry stalwarts (Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer), Shakespearean players (Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi) and some younger faces (Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley) in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Realistically though, this won’t be a film that appeals to the youthful, blockbuster-going crowd, but one which instead piques the interest of older viewers that are familiar with Christie’s works.
Aside from the acting, it’s the cinematography that is most likely to attract the audience’s attention. Each scene is meticulously framed to focus on all that is happening, tracking between one moment and the next with ease – an admirable feat, considering that much of the plot takes place in the claustrophobic setting of a train carriage. Those same carriages are a sight to behold themselves, with the exquisitely detailed sets making the viewer feel as though they’re travelling aboard a real train.
Elsewhere, Murder on the Orient Express is less compelling. Aside from Branagh’s Poirot, the characters aren’t particularly memorable, nor for that matter is Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack. Even the story has little to offer – arguably it’s Christie’s greatest work, presenting her moustachioed investigator with an interesting conundrum, but those who aren’t aficionados of the author, or the genre, are bound to find the resolution convoluted. Those who are fans of Agatha Christie, on the other hand, would be just as satisfied with the previous adaptations.
Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is a film which gets that basics right, with a strong cast, absorbing story and great cinematography making it a pleasure to watch. Yet it’s also a film which plays it too safe, with no moment being spectacular enough to leave a lasting impression. While the picture is good, it’s not good enough to justify seeing in a cinema.