Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Running Time: 114 mins
Synopsis: The so called Worlds Greatest Detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) opts to take a journey on the legendary Orient Express train. This luxurious lavish ride is rudely interrupted when one of its passengers is found murdered. Encasing everyone within the train Poirot is determined to discover the killer but finds many potential suspects amongst the varied and mysterious characters onboard.
Upon announcing that his next filmic endeavour would be an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s renowned Murder on the Orient Express you had to wonder what Kenneth Branagh might do to separate this one from the very crowded market. The author with the most adaptations of her works, this film represents the 149th screen iteration, of which Orient Express stands as one of the consistent offenders, notably Sidney Lumet’s 1974 star studded version. What then could he do?! Perhaps a modern day upgrade, set on an Underground train maybe, or even an animated one populated entirely by dogs. The options were numerous, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that the theatrical thespian would elect to go old school instead. Returning to a world before big budget franchise films and comic book adaptations where massive captivating stars would simply be put in a room together and let the sparks fly. This is both the blessing and the curse of 2017s Orient Express.
One slice of modernity is to shoot the nefarious escapades of this ragtag band in massive 70mm IMAX ratio, therefore Branagh utilises a number of beautiful soaring establishing shots, especially in the opening sequences set in Istanbul and Jerusalem. Occasional weaknesses in CGI do present themselves but overall it looks lavish. However when the main action kicks in, the train trapped after an avalanche tumbles upon them and a murder occurs, the film takes place almost completely in the tight confines of the carriages negating the need for such widescreen footage. This surely explains the addition of a quite frankly marvellous moustache upon Branagh’s face as the renowned “World’s Greatest Detective”Hercule Poirot. Stretching from ear to ear, it is almost fascinating to observe, not to mention key to a few big laughs as we witness his nocturnal methods of keeping it groomed. Anyway enough of moustaches. Taking on double duties as director and lead Branagh commits to both ably.
Opening with the infamous sleuth solving a high profile case, we see the driven almost mystical abilities of the detective. Highly accented, deeply charming, delightfully loquacious and detailed to a fault. The drive for balance in all aspects of his life, keenly represented in his desire for perfectly level eggs, is both humorous and powerfully noble. Branagh gives him a glinting playfulness, his joy at reading Dickens novels is lovable, but underneath is a watchful eye and an even greater belief in justice. The way this case shakes his moral foundations is one of the key aspects Branagh gets right, as the case itself feels frustratingly skin deep. Leaping onto the Orient Express in order to get back to London, whilst desiring a small break from detecting, he meets the assorted characters whom make up this particular journey into darkness.
Delving into full breakdowns would drag this review into far too many words, but suffice to say casting such big names is an inspired route. In shrinking a detailed heavy novel into 114 mins there is obviously no time to fully sketch out every one of them, so casting skilled charismatic performers gives Branagh a short hand in conveying his suspects. Of the bunch there are standouts; Johnny Depp is the best he’s been in a while as a salacious seedy gangster, Judi Dench is delightfully biting, Daisy Ridley proves she’s more than Star Wars as a Governess with a troubled heart and Josh Gad is nervy fun as Depp’s devious assistant. Michelle Pfeiffer makes the biggest impression though as a shrewish, voracious passenger, scathing with witty putdowns but revealing a past of painful sorrow. The rest do solid work but get pretty short shrift in the films drive to keep things tight. They are good at hinting at background miseries and individual prejudices, particularly some subtle observations about race and trauma. But the script lacks thorough insight, the cast elevating the material through performance not dialogue.
As Poirot goes about the train interviewing his suspects and slowly building a picture Branagh keeps his camera at a constant state of intriguing observation, notably some clever downward shots as if God himself was looking down, casting judgement on these troubled fools. The train itself is a marvel of handsome production design, gorgeously costumed and lavish to absorb yourself in. Despite all this good work though there is something about the film that keeps you oddly distant. The aforementioned lack of character exploration, which the wide canvas of a novel has the time to do, and clunky deliverance of the wider mystery that may link everything together leaves you feeling less invested. Branagh flashes back to these moments with very little prelude, never sketching it out to allow us to truly invest. It makes the final revelation of the ultimate culprit a tad underwhelming, with the way it affects Poirot’s moral sensibilities being the only tangible connection to the audience.
Still outside of the sub-standard revelations and surface level character work, there is fun to be had. Branagh laces in some devilish humour, usually from the man himself. The film looks wonderful with an evocative score by Patrick Doyle, and it is nice to see an adult orientated large scale production that prizes marquee names chomping in to intriguing theatrical characters. I’d also be very happy to see further adventures of Branagh as Poirot, so fun he is to watch. It’s just a pity he couldn’t make the movie around him as memorable, well outside of the moustache of course!
Verdict: Lavish production values, a star studded cast and a hugely enjoyable Kenneth Branagh performance keep you entertained but the film as a whole is less than the sum of its solid parts. When a moustache is the most memorable part of your film, something is amiss.