“Murder on the Orient Express” is a solid ride. It has heart, humor, with a sturdy track of a story. And yet it won’t be remembered as a classic the same way its literary and motion-picture predecessors are. Although tempting to place the problem on its pacing, the real perpetrator is in its passengers.
They, like their film, are very good. They just aren’t given enough time to show off their Oscar-awarded and -nominated talents. As a result, this “Orient Express” is enjoyable enough for a midday matinee, but likely won’t get close to the celebrated Sunday station in March 2018.
Already nominated by the Academy for his acting and directing, Kenneth Branagh assumes both roles in this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel. As detective Hercule Poirot, Branagh is the best part of “Express.” Poirot is particular—about the yoke that ties a criminal to a crime and the eggs that sit atop his morning plate. He’s a Belgian who likes balance, and he seeks it with great warmth.
But as director, Branagh treats his colleagues a little more coldly—and with a runtime just under two hours, he kind of has to.
“Orient Express” starts in Jerusalem the same year Christie’s book was published. As proof of Hercule Poirot’s masterful mystery-solving skills, he manages to achieve the herculean task of Middle East peace—a form of it anyway. From there we follow Poirot to Istanbul, where his hope for a holiday is ambushed by an untimely telegraph: He is to return to London for another case. His ride: the Orient Express.
From the film’s first frame, Branagh paints quite the motion picture. In what appears to be a more pristine past, it’s perhaps no accident our introduction to Poirot, in his days about Jerusalem and Istanbul, is full of warm colors and even warmer interactions. It’s on the Orient where things get icy.
It starts with Poirot’s fellow fares. There’s the chilling: Johnny Depp’s Ratchett (a man of business), Judi Dench’s Dragomiroff (a biddy of a princess), and Willem Dafoe’s Gerhard (a flat-out racist). The accommodating: Daisy Ridley’s maiden Mary, Leslie Odom Jr.’s dutiful Dr. Arbuthnot, Josh Gad as Ratchett’s right-hand Hector, and Penélope Cruz’s evangelical Pilar. And then there’s the most welcoming: Michelle Pfeiffer’s husbandless Caroline Hubbard and the Orient Express’s director, Bouc (Tom Bateman).
With a few more riders to round out the cabin, the Orient speeds for London until it’s derailed by weather—and murder. It’s here that “Express” is exactly, and unfortunately, that: too fast. The time spent with the suspects feels rushed, which makes their suspicions lacking in both interest and suspense.
And it’s a shame. The writing is tight and glamorous, and the costumes just as well-tailored and good-looking. The shots—the cinematic ones, that is—are sweeping and simple, depending on the subject. And the soul-filled subjects fill each with class and the utmost commitment. If only we had another 30 minutes to better appreciate their parts.
Had Branagh brought his character’s pursuit of balance to his directorship, we might’ve cared more for the crew the same way we do for Poirot. With such an Oscar-caliber cast and script, that their roles seem so small really is the biggest crime of “Murder on the Orient Express.”
3.5 out of 5