Kenneth Branagh was facing an uphill battle in choosing to remake Murder on the Orient Express. For better or worse, remaking any film is naturally going to draw comparisons to the original (in this case a very well received film from 1974 that saw an Oscar win for Ingrid Berman). Couple that with the fact that this particular story was not only a universally beloved book, but also one of the most popular whodunit stories of all-time and Branagh was facing a trifecta of challenges.
As someone who has both seen the 1974‘s Murder on the Orient Express and read the book in middle school, I (like many who will see this movie, I assume) already knew the story of this particular adventure for Hercule Poirot. If you are unfamiliar with the character, Poirot is a brilliant, world-renowned Belgian detective that pops up in 33 novels and over 50 short stories across Agatha Christie’s bibliography. I like to think of him as someone with the same meticulous attention to detail as Sherlock Holmes (with much less drug use) combined with the obsessive-compulsive tendencies of Adrian Monk. Due to my familiarity with what would play out on screen, while in the theater I focused less on the plot that was unfolding and more on the characters who were involved.
As with any remake, it was the portrayals of the characters upon which the success or failure of the movie would rest. Surprisingly, it is here that I think the movie stumbles the most and ultimately fails to the live up to the potential such an impressive cast promises.
And impressive this cast is – at least on paper. When the trailer first dropped, I remember remarking to one of my buddies that this might be the best ensemble of actors and actresses since The Ocean’s 11 Trilogy (my personal choice for best ensemble movie and cast of all time). From perennial A-listers like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Willem Dafoe to up-and-coming (not to mention marketable) stars like Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad; top to bottom it is an all-star line up. A line up that also includes literal Hollywood royalty (they do not call her Dame Judi Dench for nothing). Any flick that boasts an impressive 22 career Academy Award nominations for its cast is always going to get my attention.
But for all the talent this cast possesses, their potential is mostly squandered on half realized characters that are largely forgotten as soon as the credits roll. Branagh’s stint as Piroit was particularly troublesome for me.
We are first introduced to Poirot as he effortlessly solves an ostensibly impossible case; managing to wrap the whole thing up in about 5 minutes. Yearning for a little rest and relaxation, the detective hops aboard the titular Orient Express. But as luck would have it, on his first night aboard the train an avalanche obstructs the tracks and one of the passengers selfishly gets himself murdered, halting in its tracks not only the locomotive but also Poirot’s much cherished R&R.
At the end of the day, I just did not find Poirot particularly likeable and therefore found it very difficult to root for him. I cannot help but compare him with Robert Downey Jr.’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and 2011 who, while boastful and abrasive, had heart and charm. It is these endearing character attributes that I found Poirot lacking. He is clearly a great detective and a sharp mind, but his lack of charisma only had me half-invested in the ultimate outcome of the mystery.
For all of its character’s shortcomings, Murder on the Orient Express excels from a technical aspect. The cinematography and landscapes are at times breathtaking, aside from one questionable camera angle that snuck its way into the final cut. Considering a majority of the film took place within the narrow confines of train cars, Branagh’s ability to limit the viewer’s feelings of claustrophobia was a true accomplishment.
Murder on the Orient Express, while not perfect, is an ambitious and technically impressive film. It benefits from a robust, strong plot that does its best to counteract the weaker character portrayals of the film. Ultimately it does not live up to the potential the star studded cast promises but by no means is it an absolute failure. The end of the movie loosely sets up another adventure for Poirot; if and when that happens I will definitely tune in. Next time though, I might wait for it to be on HBO instead of shelling out 10 bucks to see it in the theater.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars