Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Okay, I admit it. I have never read Agatha Christie. What? I just never saw the appeal, despite enjoying similar murder mysteries. And the trailer almost put me off. That ridiculous moustache! Can I bear to look at it for a whole movie?

“Hercule Poirot’s just stepped off the steaming train. And if you want my opinion, I think they all did it.”

No, that’s not a spoiler, it’s a quote from Red Dwarf that kept popping into my head as I watched this. The plot starts off strong, but quickly becomes too ridiculous to work, and yes, I’m aware that I’m criticizing the best selling British writer after Shakespeare. His plots were preposterous, too.

The film opens in Jerusalem, with Poirot solving an entirely irrelevant mystery. This sequence might be the best part of the movie: opening with a memorable introduction to the protagonist and segueing into a climactic scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie. Beautifully filmed. From Jerusalem we follow our hero to Istanbul and from there he boards the titular Orient Express, along with a colorful array of characters, a suspicious number of whom, we will learn, are connected to a closed kidnapping case that had a tragic ending.

Murder on the Orient Express is beautifully filmed in the style of old Hollywood. The all-star cast adds to that impression: everyone is perfectly cast and Kenneth Branagh is one of those directors who always seems to get the very best from his actors. No one in the cast is phoning it in, which is good, since the script gives few of the characters any depth. Josh Gadd shines as Hector MacQueen, the put-upon manservant who is the obvious suspect in the murder. Johnny Depp is deliciously menacing as Ratchett. Daisy Ridley also gets some interesting material in her role as Mary Debenham, wide-eyed innocence masking a keen intelligence almost a match for Poirot’s own. And Michelle Pfeifer hams it up beautifully as the drama-loving Mrs Hubbard. Everyone else does their best but with such limited material their talents are wasted.

Branagh, of course, plays Poirot, with no lack of depth but perhaps some odd inconsistencies and oh, gods, that moustache! It’s a terrible distraction.

The few changes from the novel both make and break the film. The additions are all good: the opening I already mentioned, a breathtaking avalanche that derails the train, a tense chase scene over a chasm. But key details have been cut to make space for those scenes and the cuts make the plot even more ridiculous. This is not a whodunnit. The audience has no chance of putting the clues together. Rather, we are invited to be impressed by the massive intellect before us. It’s a choice that distracts, like Poirot’s moustache, from the poignancy of the ending.

Not a bad film, but not great.