Courtesy of FOX
There’s quite a bit happening in “Murder On The Orient Express” a classic murder mystery and old fashioned whodunit in the same vein as a game of Clue. Only this time, the Agatha Christie adaptation has found new life from fan Kenneth Branagh, and he’s enlisted a top notch cast to help bring this tale into the 21st century. Except, when you’ve cast of A-listers, some of them aren’t going to share the limelight as much as others. So, yeah, it’s nice to turn my head and see a recognizable face, but what good does it do, if you forget they’re in the film anyway? While the movie itself has a steady and dense buildup to the final reveal, which, if you’ve seen the original or read the book, nothing’s changed. As a disclaimer, I hadn’t seen the 1970 film of the same name, or read the book. I just read there’s a stipulation that whoever produces this title, the ending cannot be changed. So, in that regard, as a newcomer to the materiel, the ending is rather satisfying, but it took some tough sledding to get there. Others, due to a substantial amount of backstory, might even walk out confused to the final twist.
Knowing Branagh, he can’t just be the lead role in front of the camera, he’s also got to direct the film behind it as well. I took it as kind’ve a throwback to when the director took on “Hamlet” and didn’t cut a single word of the five act opus. “Express” is about as classical as the Shakespeare work, although maybe not as timeless. Branagh takes on the lead role as detective Hercule Poirot (the best performance of the film - with the right amount of cheeky brand humor), a meticulous and oddly specific investigator, who is called upon to consult on a number of cases. When we first meet him, the year is 1934 and he’s in the heart of Jerusalem working on, what’s supposed to be, his final case. But, as fate would have it, he gets roped into another cake walk aboard the Orient express, which has just been stopped dead in it’s tracks due to an avalanche and where a dead body has just been discovered. Who did it? And why? Seems to be the question.
Often touting himself as the greatest detective in the world, with his mustache that twirls around his face, Poirot must solve a crime: a murder where almost everyone has something to hide. The suspect list includes (deep breath) - the long suffering assistant (Josh Gad); the sneaky butler (Derek Jacobi), a purring widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), who knows when a man has been in her cabin. Than again there’s something fishy about a clever governess Mary (Daisy Ridley), and her not so secret lover, Dr. Arbuthnot (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odum Jr.); the snooty Princess Dragomiroff and her coward German maid (Judi Dench and Olivia Colman); Pilar, the saintly missionary with a jagged scar on her cheek (Penelope Cruz); and a jumpy Austrian professor named Gerhard (Willem Dafoe). Stashed in there are also a count and countess, with just as much motive as the rest of them.
It’s a decent amount to take in, and that’s partially why you probably won’t find yourself invested in the characters. It’s ironic there’s a theme of imbalance throughout the film, as Poirot is constantly struggling with the scales of justice, because, when the film clicks - it soars. Some of the earlier interview sequences, are harrowing and set the film in motion. Then there’s other moments where the film becomes lost in exposition. After all, we’re presented a climax midway through the movie, and it’s the filmmaker's job to dig us out of this hole. And thanks in large part to a slew of character work by the lead performers, it’s watchable. (Johnny Depp hams it up as a thug-like gangster, who, spoiler alert, is the victim in which the plot revolves around.) He’s a character that has many enemies, so pegging his killer is not so easy, and it involves a backstory dating back to a case earlier in Poirot’s career, that is quickly dissected, dismissed and needed to be handled better.
Still, when you have this many characters, juggling them becomes a circus act. For example, I forgot that Dafoe was even in the film, until he pops up and does a quick scene, which is only there to remind us that he’s still on the roster.
It also doesn’t help that we live in a culture where murder is so desensitized, that it makes “Express” feel a tad outdated, but the hook of figuring out who did the crime and why, makes the digging worth the wait. Expect a few twists and about three different endings, which is probably used to keep you on your toes. All of the movie is staged exceptionally well, a testament to Branagh having a cast who knows how to sell this schlock. But, I can’t look at the overall picture and not feel a tad disappointed. Yeah, the movie’s decent and serviceable, but was it wrong to have above average expectations? Perhaps. I think “Murder On The Orient Express” is going to find an audience that will be willing to forgive all the imbalances. Even if the lead character, Poirot himself, might watch this movie and wonder how it could’ve miss the mark. B-