This first paragraph has little to do with the movie we’ll be discussing today. We’ll get to that, but I have to get something off my chest first. Multiple times walking out of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which, admittedly, isn’t great, I overheard people ask, “Have you heard of her before?” Her being AGATHA FUCKING CHRISTIE. Only the most celebrated mystery writer of all fucking time. Apologies, I needed to yell about that for a moment. I’m rage hyperventilating just thinking about it. Onward.
The latest of roughly 1,000 adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express, arguably Christie’s most famous work, starts off as a promising romp. An affected, old school sensibility and stylistic veneer are sure to turn off some viewers, but it begins fantastic and wonderful and fun. Until it isn’t. Along the route, much like the titular train, the pace screeches to a dead stop. I’ve seen both “Bore-ient Express” and “Snore-ient Express” bandied about, and unfortunately, neither is far off.
The story should be familiar by now. On a luxurious train stranded on a snowy mountain pass, there’s a murder. Orient Express tells the tale of the 13 strangers trapped on the train while Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the world’s greatest detective, races to solve the mystery. It’s the original contained potboiler (don’t fact check me on this). There’s a crime, a suspect pool, no one can leave, and the murderer lurks somewhere among the passengers.
Branagh obviously has a blast playing the legendary detective—we don’t see much of his skill for ourselves, but he and many others tell us that repeatedly, so it must be true. He and his mustache, which has its own mustache—don’t ask, you have to see it for yourself to wrap your brain around the magnificence—bounce off a stacked cast that includes Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucy Boynton, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, and more. All of whom do good work, even when they don’t have much substance to work with—the continual plight of translating novels to screen is the limited space for things like character development. And I didn’t hate Josh Gad, which is perhaps the most remarkable feat Orient Express achieves.
The early going doesn’t blaze any new trails, but it’s a crackling frolic full of sharp wit and loaded dialogue. And it’s absolutely gorgeous to behold. The costumes and sets are intricate and detailed; the train cars feel lived in and authentic. And again, Poirot’s mustache! (I’ve always been more of a Miss Marple boy rather than a Poirot Stan, but I can appreciate phenomenal facial hair when I see it. And it is one spectacular cookie dusting soup strainer.)
Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor) keep things visually intriguing, not easy when the entire story takes place in a long metal tube. Okay, maybe there are a few too many CGI-heavy sweeping shots of the train chugging through scenic exteriors. But Branagh, never one to be outdone, even by himself, kicks things up a notch. There’s that epic single shot at the end of his adaptation of Henry V that’s one of the more stunning moments in modern cinema, and while it doesn’t hit the same highs—nowhere close in fact—he pulls off what’s reportedly the longest 65mm Steadicam shot ever.
The problem is, for all the exterior gloss and sheen, that’s all the movie has to offer. There’s nothing beyond empty surface machinations and plot gymnastics. It’s an aesthetic exercise, an occasionally spectacular one, but one with no emotional connection or weight. Style only carries a movie so far, and it loses exponential value as the film progresses.
Ultimately, Murder on the Orient Express derails. The initial momentum peters out until it devolves into one scene after another of Poirot talking to the next character in line, one by one. Instead of a master investigator cleverly probing and strategically digging, where each question carries multiple meanings and every word a deceptive import, unearthing one clue after another, only to deepen the mystery, which is where this story traditionally derives its suspense and tension—elements entirely absent here—each conversation plays more tedious, bland, and toothless than the last. These characters are supposed to be guarded and secretive, but they’re hollow, empty, and worst of all, dull beyond belief.
It all leads up to one of the most famous plot twists of all time, but Jesus Christ, the second half of Murder on the Orient Express becomes a plodding chore. The journey begins well enough, but the train jumps the tracks and collides with a lifeless procedural that’s more Kenneth Branagh vanity project than murder mystery. [Grade: C+]