Director and actor Kenneth Branagh’s (“Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing”) latest film, “Murder on the Orient Express,” relies mostly on celebrity star power and tenuous buildup to keep its adaptation of novelist Agatha Christie’s famous murder mystery rolling.
While the film doesn’t completely derail as it tediously unfolds, it lacks the energy and excitement that constitutes a tale of murder and revenge. Although its star-studded cast fails to save the film from its overall lifelessness, the acting is strong enough to warrant the cast some recognition.
“Murder on the Orient Express” begins with Branagh’s excellent portrayal of the famous fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, as he solves a baffling mystery in Jerusalem. Bearing Poirot’s trademark handlebar mustache, Branagh does justice to the character’s peculiar, perfectionist personality, evoking David Suchet’s portrayal of the detective in the British TV series “Agatha Christie’s Poirot.”
Upon arriving in Istanbul for vacation, Poirot runs into his friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), the conductor of the titular train, the Orient Express. When a telegram arrives from London demanding that Poirot attend to a case, Bouc offers him a ticket to France on the Orient Express. Then, the rest of the train’s passengers gradually come into the picture, such as the suspicious art dealer Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and his secretary Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). Depp’s portrayal of the sly and underhanded Ratchett seems similar to his phenomenal role as Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” while Gad succeeds in the depiction of his character as a ruthless money-monger. Judi Dench gracefully bears her role as the pretentious Princess Dragomiroff, and Olivia Colman embodies the fearfulness and docility of her character Hildegarde Schmidt — the princess’ servant.
Each character’s personality is kept secret until one passenger is murdered and Poirot begins questioning the people onboard. Through Poirot’s interrogations more details about the passengers emerge, adding a much-needed spark of curiosity to the film’s plot.
The first half of the film appears to move in slow motion as the characters begin to familiarize themselves with the train and their fellow passengers. At times, the script fails to add momentum to the storyline, occasionally incorporating phrases that seem out of place for the film’s 1930s setting. There’s some unfortunate product placement — a box of Godiva chocolates is placed within perfect view of the camera in two scenes — that’s slightly distracting, especially considering the product’s packaging appears a little too modern for the time period.
While Branagh’s acting skills are top notch, some of his directorial decisions are strange and ineffective — especially regarding the film’s cinematography. Branagh’s decision to film certain scenes from an aerial perspective is one that offers no real advantage, considering it prevents audiences from seeing emotions play out on the characters’ faces. Because the camera is looking down on the characters’ heads when the murder victim is discovered in his room, the shocking energy of the moment is insufficient.
Despite the film’s weaknesses, those unfamiliar with the plot should be both surprised and adequately entertained by the ending. Perhaps if Branagh spent more time carefully crafting the film’s suspense, audiences would leave with more to mull over besides a talented cast and an intricate, yet poorly conveyed storyline.
Those expecting an extravagant set design and beautiful costumes will be disappointed, as will those expecting a definite climax. “Murder on the Orient Express” never seems to reach its full potential, ungracefully bowing out before any of the action begins. Before Poirot has the chance to solve the case, the film’s uninspiring tone bars the way for audiences’ amusement. Ultimately, the story fails to elicit an emotional reaction from audiences even when the mystery is revealed. It seems that Branagh rushed to put his film together, with his final product appearing far from done. Nevertheless, the film’s acting performances and Agatha Christie’s timeless story save Branagh’s film from heading toward disaster.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is now playing in theaters nationwide.