Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Kenneth Branagh’s nostalgic and star-studded adaptation is gorgeous to look at – but slightly loses its substance to style.

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in this adaptation of the great Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express – perhaps one of her most memorable titles for its surprise ending that shall not be spoiled here. Initial trailers for the film proved exciting, promising an adaptation that took the responsibility of presenting one of Britain’s best crime-writers very seriously. With the wealth of material available from Christie’s prolific career, there is hope this would be a new novel-based franchise. The film delivers on a beautiful aesthetic and unbelievable cast but falls a little short of maintaining the atmosphere needed to make this a film worth raving about – although it is a promising start.

The first thing which must be said about this feature is it is gorgeous. Everything from the set to the costumes is painstakingly detailed and contributes to the film’s lavish look. There is something warming about the nostalgia provoked by the low-light of the interiors, detailed props and luscious fabrics. The contrast between this rich foreground against the sparse and snowy backdrop of the train – teetering off the edge of a wooden bridge beneath the scaling mountains – adds to the tension in a way that all cinematic settings should add to a mystery-thriller. The soundtrack is haunting, punchy and fitting of the setting without sounding too archaic. Overall, these efforts are fully effective in making Murder on the Orient Express a transporting and atmospheric experience.

As many will notice from the trailer alone, the only feature more impressive than this aesthetic is the film’s impressive cast. It would be impossible not to appreciate the legwork that must have gone into getting Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Olivia Coleman, Leslie Odom Jnr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Defoe, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Ruflo and the powerhouse that is Dame Judi Dench into one film. Unfortunately, Murder on the Orient Express, as with any film with as many stars of this calibre involved – fails to give each name sufficient screen time for a noteworthy performance. This, of course, excludes Kenneth Branagh who does an excellent job as Hercule Poirot. Branagh presents an even more playful interpretation of the great detective than we have seen before and it is a portrayal that I believe Christie herself would have enjoyed. The Poirot of the books is, at his core, a warm and comedic character and it is through his comic moments that one realises the screenplay is also beautifully written.

However, though the comedic tone is spot on and the aesthetics are overpoweringly lovely, there is something missing from a story that is quintessentially a murder-thriller. Whilst I’m rarely one to slate creative cinematography, at points the camerawork and choice of angles worked as a distraction rather than an amplification of its gorgeous material. A few panning shots through windows and coloured glass (no doubt on a metaphorical level working to displace the viewer) made me temporarily feel like I had entered a different mystery all together and was now playing ‘Where’s Wally’ with whichever character was speaking. Film-theory students will have a field day as it simulated quite well the feeling of being on a moving train and trying to focus on something outside. What’s more, an intriguing aerial angle when the dead body was discovered removed the shock factor of seeing the corpse. But rather than an effort to keep the film family-friendly or tease the audience, this just muted one of the most dramatic moments of any murder-mystery. The body was then shown a short while later when the tension had fizzled.

Indeed, the maintenance of tension is probably where audiences will feel Murder on the Orient Express falls short. For all the beauty, strong performances and detail there are just too many moments where the fear and danger that should motivate the plot of a murder-mystery take a backseat. With a trailer that seemed to promise so much drama and passion, it feels very lacklustre at times. Moments of low-energy interrogation are interrupted by the more high-octane, dramatic segments such as a chase-scene on the wooden bridge or a non-fatal stabbing. Yet the lack of build-up in tension to moments like these means they feel over before they began and function more as rude interruptions to the plot which trundles along effortlessly. Not to do the plot an injustice as it is, of course, brilliant as per the novel. However, at no point did I find myself clinging to my seat or aching to discover something.

Overall, Murder on the Orient Express was not a bad first attempt. Physically it goes above and beyond expectation but there is a feeling that the film’s focus on its beautiful exterior causes it to neglect the feelings it needed to evoke – the essential building blocks of its genre. This said, it is great to see such time, effort and passion being invested in this adaptation of Christie’s novel and, hopefully, there will be lessons learned for the next instalment.

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