A classic whodunit is always appealing. It’s a type of story that seems relegated to modern police procedurals and misses that classic flavoring and touch of some sort extraordinary detective with skills that other detectives wish they had. These are the Sherlock Holmes and the Clue types of movies that are vaguely around anymore.
This is what made the prospect of Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Murder On the Orient Express very exciting. This is the very definition of a classic whodunit in the making (the novel by Agatha Christie has already produced a few classic films). Branagh, a very talented director, and actor takes centered stage as the eccentric but brilliant detective, Hercule Poirot. Poirot boards the Orient Express hoping to catch a much-deserved break from catching murderers and thieves when someone is murdered in the middle of the night. The train derails and now everyone is a suspect.
This has all the makings of a great film, a talented director, an all-star cast (led by Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Daisy Riddle, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Penélope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer), and a screenplay by Blade Runner 2049/American Gods screenwriter Michael Green. Murder of the Orient Express, unfortunately, comes off the rails. This is not a bad movie a missed opportunity.
The film makes the most of the snowy and isolated setting with a digital but still dreamlike landscape. Meanwhile, Branagh finds impressive ways of creating dynamic viewpoints to frame the action while in the train. This is an old fashion story but it is presented with a modern sensibility. This doesn’t feel like a stage production nor does it feel over the top and overproduced. Branagh’s direction in this regard succeeds really well. The movie is beautiful to look at.
Where Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green don’t succeed is at juggling the large cast of characters. While watching this mystery unfold you’ll be trying to figure out the killer along with Poirot but throughout the middle section of the film, you’ll find yourself trying to remind yourself of who certain characters are and what their story is. There are close to a dozen “suspects”. The names don’t stick well and many of the characters feel disposable. While keeping a lot of the characters in the movie might make it more true to the original novel, it works against the film’s strengths which is close quarters tension.
When Pinout is interviewing the suspects the dialogue and direction are a bit dull and I found my mind starting wander because many of the characters are just uninteresting. The interviews also lacked tension and urgency. The final revelation takes a major suspension of disbelief as well.
The performances themselves are all good (especially by Branagh, Daisy Riddle, and Pfeiffer). The few characters that are fleshed out are well done and well performed. Despite much of the second act problems, the third act reveals and decisions are surprisingly emotional because Branagh was wise to focus solely on just a couple of characters that were more fleshed out than others.
This is a mixed bag. There are many good things, Branagh crafts a beautiful movie, one that stands alongside his excellent Cinderella remake, the performances are all good, Pinout is memorable, and the emotional ending does make up for the sometimes dull second act. However, the overabundance of characters, lack of a strong wit and urgency really hamper what should have been a great adaptation. At a cheap afternoon showing Murder on the Orient Express is worth a watch. Hopefully, Branagh can come back with another film based on his take on the Pinout character.