It seems that the days of the name above the title movies is mostly a thing of the past. Back in the day you could throw a few big names on a poster and flash them across the screen during a trailer and that was guaranteed box office gold. The argument could be made that we don’t really have movie stars anymore and money can’t be made on names alone.
This is a sentiment that is ignored by Murder on the Orient Express which earns a lot of goodwill because of its throwback sensibilities. It’s an old-school murder mystery that boasts an all-star cast and it revels in that fact. Hollywood really doesn’t make films like this anymore and that could be why I had so much fun with it. Adding to this, Kenneth Branagh directs the film competently and infuses it with style and a bit of substance. If you’ve read Agatha Christie’s book on which this is based or seen the 1974 Oscar nominated rendition, you know where it’s all headed but its a credit to Branagh that he still manages to engage the viewer despite this fact.
The movie opens at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where Poirot exhibits his skills as a detective by solving a particularly nettlesome crime. He then boards the Orient Express when his presence is requested in London and intends to use his time aboard the train as a mini-vacation. It turns into one of his most difficult cases when one of the passengers is murdered and everyone in the car is a suspect. With the train stalled because of an avalanche, Poirot conducts his investigation.
The cast star-studded and a lot of these names probably propelled its opening this past weekend beyond what most was tracking it at. In a case where the cast is so big, a lot of them get a few scenes to show their faces but this is ultimately a film that belongs to Poirot, played by Kenneth Branagh, and the rest of the cast is mere window dressing. I don’t mean this as a dig at all, in fact, this makes it very faithful to Christie’s book which is more about the “whodunit” and is definitely on the side of being driven by plot rather than character development. This isn’t so much an actor’s movie despite a cast that includes names like Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp. It’s fun to see them pop up and have a little fun with their roles but the film isn’t really about them.
Visually the film is surprisingly spectacular. Haris Zambarloukos’ evocative cinematography combines well with Branagh’s decision to use 65 mm cameras. It allows for a more epic “feel” to the visuals even if seen in a regular theater with digital projection. He often uses long takes, especially early in the movie for the characters’ establishing shots (either in the station or aboard the train, where he pans along the length looking through the windows from outside). Period detail is excellent and there are times when it’s possible to imagine being aboard a luxury train wending its way through the cold, snowy mountains on the route between Istanbul and Paris.
As stated before, Branagh is the true focus and his portrayal of Poirot is highly effective. His pomposity is played for comedic purposes in the beginning (along with a mustache that nearly upstages him) but his character becomes more grounded and serious as his investigation deepens. This may not be the definitive version of Poirot but Branagh doesn’t disappoint.
Even though I knew the ending going in, I was able to think about it from the perspective of someone who didn’t know. In that regard, for those who don’t know the ending, Murder on the Orient Express represents a gripping mystery told in a classic style with enough “detecting” to allow the viewer to guess along with Poirot about who may be guilty. There’s a lot of exposition and it can be difficult to keep the cast of characters straight and even more of an exercise to piece together how they fit into a larger picture. Nevertheless, the big reveal is as impactful as ever. Those who are aware of the killer’s identity may be less engaged but there are still pleasures to be had: Branagh’s performance, the set design, the camera work, and the tight pacing that doesn’t disappoint.
In the end, the most welcoming thing about Murder on the Orient Express is the big-budget foray into a genre that motion pictures have all-but-forgotten: the classic murder mystery. The film isn’t too long to wear out its welcome and there’s something impressive about being surrounded by such attention to detail and so many familiar faces. Although the film will work considerably better for newcomers to the story, there’s enough here to appeal to veterans who long for a “whodunit” that is worthy of their time.