“Murder on the Orient Express” is based on the 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)
In a surprising turn of events, a movie that is a remake and was relying on its big-name stars to get people into the theaters was better than it should have been.
While traveling about the Orient Express on a much-needed break, Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is forced into an investigation when a passenger aboard the train is killed, and any one of the other passengers could be the killer.
The selling gimmick of “Murder on the Orient Express” is its star-studded cast, and that is not a disappointment. Kenneth Branagh is exceptional in his role as Poirot, and the rest of the cast does a good job as well. The two who stand out the most alongside Branagh are Michelle Pfeiffer and “Star Wars” actress Daisy Ridley. The only downsides to the casting are Willem Dafoe, who is underused compared to the rest of the cast, and Johnny Depp. Depp is doing one of his better performances in this movie, but he fails to enunciate his words and is hard to understand at points.
While the cast of actors is good, the cast of characters is only subpar. For a cast that is so large it is understandable that some of the characters would receive more development than others, though who receives that development seems to have been decided arbitrarily. Poirot has a character: he is an intelligent and idiosyncratic detective with a desire to seek out justice. Ridley, Pfeiffer and Depp are the most developed of the characters outside of Poirot, whereas the rest just seem to serve as suspects with one or two character-traits to differentiate them. That is fine considering the size of the cast, but some characters do not get a proper introduction, others barely get utilized other than to serve as another potential suspect and one pair of characters disappears for most of the movie and are forgotten about until the half-way point.
The plot of the movie is hard to do, as it is a fairly typical mystery story. A bunch of strangers are stranded together in a unique environment and one of them is killed. A detective who just happens to be in the unique environment then solves the case. It has been done many times before, and the outcome of the mystery in the case of “Murder on the Orient Express” is one that can be seen an hour before the ending when the interrogations of the characters start.
While the story is quite generic and the murderer’s identity is obvious, “Murder on the Orient Express” does manage to rise above just being a generic and predictable who-done-it murder mystery. The pacing, the actors’ performances and the interesting intricacies of the mystery all serve to elevate a potentially run-of-the-mill story line into something engaging. Along with that, the predictability of who the murderer is can be forgiven a little based on how well the revelation scene is executed and what is done following that scene.
There are also a number of impressive technical details to the movie. Since the majority of the movie takes place on the train, there is very limited room to work with. Due to that, the camera is set up in several creative ways which makes for interesting shots. For example, there are a couple of overhead shots when Poirot is investigating the murder scene. Another noticeable feat is that there are several one shot takes where the camera follows a character or several characters through an environment in a single, fluid motion. Some of these shots are just with the majority of the main cast in a singular train cabin, which is hard, and one of them is done when Poirot boards the train in the station, which is filled with hundreds of extras.
When it comes to the story, the generic and predictable elements might be forgivable, but there are a few coincidences that are used to propel the story. It is basically one giant happenstance that the plot even happens, as the murder takes place on a train that Poirot is on because his friend (Tom Bateman) is the director of it and offers him a ride the day before, and then an unexpected avalanche suspends the train where it is to allow the investigation to happen.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is nothing new, but it does manage to elevate its already generic and uninspired existence because of strong performances and engaging storytelling.
Final Grade: B