Janus Film Review Presents: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

as reviewed by Dan

Format Reviewed: Digital/20th Century Fox (2018).

It is ironic that in adapting a story involving a character attentive to every minor detail, director and lead actor Kenneth Branagh has created a film preoccupied with surface presentation. Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is a lavish production, full of charming period touches and accoutrements, and features a cast so leaden with established faces it’s a wonder the whole production was able to draw breath. In truth, the stars on display are mostly pleasing to the eye and suit the glamour of the Agatha Christie source material, but their collective presence constitutes a deliberate and wholly unsubtle act of dazzlement. One gets the sense that to star in this film was to indulge in something akin to a celluloid jolly; most likely as a favour to establishment icon Branagh. Given the classically cliched tenor of the story this is probably not an awful thing, but it still ends up feeling rather garish at times.

Branagh chooses to hang his narrative hat on his own head, and this is a smart decision. Sporting a magnificent moustache - the likes of which could render grown men incontinent with envy - Branagh brings restraint and a certain bonhomie to his take on Agatha Christie’s noted sleuth, Hercule Poirot. He seems aware of the weight of prior portrayals and the expectations of the Christie fanbase, yet also offers sufficient dollops of melancholia and joviality so as to be prickly, sweet and amusing, and accessible to more transient viewers. Branagh’s Poirot is a fundamentally successful interpretation, and dramatically speaking, everything that works in the film revolves around the character. As a negative, the dialogue occasionally veers from unnecessarily trite to knowingly droll, and in terms of Poirot’s general manner, the line between fussiness and neuroses is sometimes awkwardly struck, but one cannot deny the worthiness of Branagh’s efforts. His is the film’s best performance by a significant margin.

The rest of the film’s ostensibly impressive cast is a little harder to commend. Actors of this quality are virtually incapable of proffering a truly poor performance, but a combination of the restraints of the source material - being a melodramatic ensemble, with each character forced to ‘wait their turn’ in the narrative - and the aforementioned willingness to participate more as a favour than for artistic merit, results in some instantly forgettable turns. The likes of Willem Defoe, Judi Dench and Penélope Cruz obviously enjoyed having the opportunity to offer their names and faces and play at overt melodrama, but their performances are all interchangeable and by no means necessary. Star Wars heroine Daisy ‘Rey’ Ridley (here playing the elusive Miss Mary Debenham) strikes a slightly different note, and her presence in the film represents du jour casting at its finest. Perhaps I’m being a tad harsh with what I’m about to say, but the journey on Branagh’s Orient Express represented something of a proactive opportunity for her, acting alongside those she should be aspiring to emulate, but I don’t feel she makes the most of it. Her performance is never less than acceptable, but she seems capable of no more than three facial expressions - sad, angry and sardonic - and smiling seems to be something of a physical burden. As such, Murder on the Orient Express does little to suggest she has a gleaming future post-Star Wars: Episode IX.

There is quality amidst the indifference, however. Josh Gad outshines many of his more illustrious peers with a convincingly downtrodden turn as the sheepish Hector MacQueen, and Michelle Pfeiffer underscores her more recent resurgence with a fine performance as Caroline Hubbard. She swings enjoyably from voracious vamp to vindicated victim, and plays her role in the central climax quite delightfully. I also rather enjoyed Derek Jacobi’s performance, and his interview scene with Poirot is gently poignant, and one of the few instances where the raw acting power available to the production is brought to bear. Alas, it is but a morsel. Branagh is the film’s architect, both portraying its central protagonist and handling directorial duties. In this capacity he plays things very conservatively. He is determined to execute the source material faithfully, yet is not beyond taking liberties should they serve a clear purpose. The opening prologue-come-introduction to Poirot illustrates this assertion, as does Poirot’s predilection for imitating Liam Neeson, only with an apparently magical cane instead of a gun.

Given these deviations, it is disappointing that the film does so little to further exploit the grandeur and intrigue of its setting. It is remarkably static; even when taking into account more than half the story is set on a derailed train. This lack of kinetic energy isn’t manufactured claustrophobia, for nothing is done to create it, and it’s little more than inertia; endemic of a film that wants for genuine momentum throughout. Some would doubtless argue that such a lack of mobility is the whole point, but I would counter that a fundamental lack of tension is a fairly big miss for a murder mystery. Again, one might be tempted to condemn Christie just as readily as Branagh for this. After all, this is her story, but the original novel successfully conveys the distress of being contained and detained within an opulent tin can, with a murderer on the loose and everyone as a suspect. Branagh’s film has little of this authenticity or conviction, just a crushing sense of inevitability. We’ve been shown that Poirot is a genius, and given time he will crack the case, and that’s it. Danger feels very thin on the ground. Ultimately things are neither tense nor exciting, and this is a failure of intent on the film’s part.

As classic literary adaptations go, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is a decent example, but it relies too heavily on the power of its poster, rather than the quality of its construction. Nobody is pushed, tried or tested, and the environment is always safe and never challenging. Contrast this to Tomas Alfredson’s magnificent 2011 adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Another classic literary adaptation with a stellar ensemble cast. The decision was taken to challenge the limits of the material, and to treat it as a serious acting endeavour with its own unique and potent cinematic tone. The results were multiple Academy Award nominations, one of the finest performances of Gary Oldman’s storied career and a film that honoured, celebrated and enhanced the material whence it came. It is a brilliant film, and everything Murder on the Orient Express is not. For some this won’t be much of a criticism, for we are supposed to afford such jolly celluloid capers the benefit of the doubt. If we deign to momentarily apply this logic, Murder on the Orient Express is, at its best, a mostly harmless jaunt with a fabulous moustache. However, if we disregard sentiment, the irony I noted at the very beginning of this piece completes its journey, and ultimately transforms into self-indulgent cynicism. Enough for some perhaps, but not for me.

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