Kenneth Branagh attempts a more sophisticated retelling of the classic tale.
When Murder on The Orient Express was announced last year a lot of folks wondered if a remake of the classic story was necessary. Remakes are everywhere, and while I do think there are too many, this film seemed an odd one to stake a hard claim on. The classic murder-mystery is rarely done anymore, and even though the story was familiar, I was happy to see a return to this genre.
The problem with murder-mysteries is that if you know the conclusion, there isn’t much to watch. Further, once you know the conclusion, there isn’t a need to rewatch. With spoilers running amok all over the place (and the fact that this is based on an old novel) means that most people going in probably knew the ending. I think Branagh expected this (he directed the film and plays the neurotic Hercule Poirot), and this changed the way the film is structured.
The mystery elements are blown through too fast. We are barely introduced to the characters before the mystery is underway. Character development, or the lack thereof, is a major problem in this film. This is Branagh’s show—everyone else is relegated to side roles bordering on cameos, instead it is just a loveletter to Branagh and his absurd mustache. For example, Willem Defoe is given I think two speaking sections, and he is otherwise staring in the background or simply not present. The same goes for the rest of the star-studded cast. It is hard to care about Edward Ratchett’s (Johnny Depp) murder when we know nothing about him other than he is a criminal. We also have no reason to really suspect anyone as they are all one-dimensional.
There is no time for guessing as by the time we get a brief rundown of the key suspects the mystery has more or less dispelled. I’m not sure where the storytelling went wrong, but uneven pacing and lack of development don’t allow the audience to participate in the guess-who aspects of this genre—and that is a damn shame. Instead of a true murder-mystery we have something similar to every other detective story where the answer is something that can’t be guessed or intuited, but rather must be puzzled out by a brilliant mind. Detective thrillers can get away with making the audience watch an investigation rather than participate by offering well textured characters and crimes (see True Detective).
With Murder, it seems we have the worst of both worlds. We have an almost insufferable Poirot, who’s idiosyncratic personality is at best amusing, but often off-putting as our sole guide through this crime. I like Branagh, and a lesser actor would have bungled this completely, but there are still serious inconsistencies. The neurotic nature of the detective more or less drops off once the train begins rolling, so it seems our odd scenes with him flipping out about having two eggs of equal size were more of an attempt to make him seem more like Sherlock Holmes or Adrian Monk. Not all detectives have to be quirky to the point of excess.
Where the film truly fails is the conclusion, we get a talk-heavy reveal that could have truly had an emotional punch, if it wasn’t all dumped on the floor like a bucket of water. Weird pacing makes benign scenes drag, and causes the powerful ones to go by in a flash. At the end of the film, it is hard to determine why the film was made—returning to our critics mentioned at the beginning. However, it seems to be less a commentary on the idea of a remake, but this particular style-over-substance and high-film technique focused remake.
The technical sides of the film I think are the strong part. We have many bustling scenes with more extras than most films have anymore, and Branagh has a reliable eye for a good shot. Some camera techniques (bird’s eye view) are odd, but I liked them. The film looks great, and fans of fashion, style, and great technique will find a lot to love here.
While I do think the film has serious shortcomings, it is fun. For a relaxing evening it isn’t bad—just don’t expect anything special or memorable. The movie is okay, just a little much on the mustache and the Branagh. 5/10