All aboard Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express - a train journey to die for. He’s injected Agatha Christie’s murder mystery with a star-studded cast, featuring the likes of Judi Dench and Johnny Depp. To detail each character and their role would be both procedural and flat, which is perhaps fitting considering the way this film goes about its narrative.
It begins superbly, at least, opening with Egypt, eggs and an efficiently-solved case of thievery. Poirot and his outrageous moustache get the job done, establishing both his quick-thinking and overbearing fixation on balance that is returned to throughout the film. It’s fun, splendidly realised and deliciously nostalgic; a shame then, considering the rest of the film doesn’t follow suit.
Poirot boards the titular train, and we are met with a fascinating group of strangers, each (knowingly) fitting an archetype that could be expected in a murder mystery - the butler, the count, the missionary. And indeed these introductory scenes chug along nicely, until the murder itself.
The reveal of this murder - a bird’s-eye view that floats between rooms from above, surveilling each individual as specimens - is a strange choice, reminding the audience of the film’s staginess while at once removing the audience from the danger. It’s at odds with Branagh’s interest in breaching those confines. Hulking images of the mountainous landscape and various set pieces that take place outside the train all attempt to dramatise the novel into a justifiable cinematic expedition. However, this poses another problem: by expanding the setting, we lose the pressure-cooker the train transforms into. The potential for the claustrophobia that would arise from a collection of passengers (one of whom is a murderer) trapped in a train mired by snow simply isn’t capitalised on. As such, Murder on the Orient Express is stuck in the middle, not cinematic nor cramped enough to make the whole endeavour worthwhile.
Instead, what follows is a series of interviews Poirot conducts with each passenger - it’s hardly stimulating stuff. The film becomes so enamoured with breaking each character motivation down and concealing its well-known reveal that it forgets to focus on everything else. The problem is that the murder mystery genre is at a state whereby every film of its ilk is defined by its twist. In 1934, Christie’s novel was created as a subversion of the genre - likewise in Lumet’s 1974 adaptation. Here, it’s not a subversion but a faithful rendering of many of its genres tropes. The ending shouldn’t be the point of the film - yet in Branagh’s adaptation, it’s the only point that holds his interest.
The elements that do work well are those that have been plucked from the pages of Christie: the mullings on morality, the deconstruction of its own genre via its characterised archetypes. Unfortunately, these are relegated to latent qualities, forsaken for tidy visuals and pained attention to narrative detail. Yet perhaps Murder on the Orient Express’ greatest sin is its inability to justify its existence. It has an eye-popping cast and rich source material to mine from, but both go wasted. There are no current-affair observations, no true deviations, nor is there a reason to care. What Branagh has created is a film that is already outdated, stranded between a popcorn flick and an intelligent thriller with musings on sin and morals (half-assed biblical imagery of the Last Supper included). Sadly, Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t so much as lose steam as derail. Perhaps it should have stayed buried under the snow.