Murder on the Orient Express Keeps Thrills on Track

I love corny Mystery novels. From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Dexter, Jo Nesbo to Nancy Drew (yeah, you read that right) pretty much any text with a crime, a series of plot twists, and an arrogant know-it-all protagonist will have me turning pages faster than Trump goes through Cabinet members, or a bag of McNuggets. But my first, and thus perhaps my favorite, exposure to the mystery novel came in the form of Agatha Christie’s numerous murder stories. I may very well have read every one of them during my last year of elementary school and my first year of middle school, and their grim British wit and breakneck pace have influenced both my taste, and the style of countless other storytellers. As you can imagine, I was pretty excited to learn that esteemed Actor/Director Kenneth Branagh had adapted one of her more famous novels, Murder on the Orient Express, to the screen for the second time. When I then learned the movie featured a slew of talented actors and also Johnny Depp, I was even more eager to see it.

While nothing can ever compare to cracking open the novel for the first time, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The movie stays fairly faithful to the source material, and the characters are all sketched with both economy and wit. Due to the fact that this is a mystery, i.e. the one genre where knowing the ending actually has any impact on how much you enjoy the story (that’s science, look it up) I shall refrain from revealing too much about any character or about the plot in this review.

The movie opens with the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh) at a breakfast table in Palestine attempting without success to find two perfectly symmetrical eggs, and to pass off his mustache as normal.

Seriously, who in the goddamn hell grows a mustache like that? No mortal human could ever be capable of such a feat, unless aided by some dark, long forgotten god, or esoteric order of facial hair mystics. But as we quickly see, Poirot is no regular mortal man. Using nothing but his romanticized and undiagnosed mental illness and his walking stick, he solves the Israel/Palestine conflict in microcosm within the first 15 minutes of the film, all the while cracking his typical series of dry bon mots. Shortly after this affair is resolved, Poirot boards a train, along with 12 other characters, bound back for Europe through the alps. But while aboard, he is approached by American Gangster and Con Artist Edward Ratchett (played by funny-accent-machine-posing-as-human Johnny Depp). Ratchett claims to have been receiving threatening letters  since boarding the Orient Express, and asks Poirot at gunpoint to be his bodyguard (incidentally the same method used by Depp to get any role not in a Tim Burton film). Poirot declines politely, and retires to his chambers, only to awake the next morning and find the train bogged down in snow.

At first, given the numerous allegations of violence against women hanging over him, and the even more numerous accusations of ruining good movies by refusing to display human emotion that are hanging over him, I was both ethically and artistically mystified by Branagh’s choice to have Depp in his film. But about 30 minutes into the movie, Johnny’s performance drastically improves when he is stabbed to death, and then spends the rest of the movie lying on a bed and not speaking—easily his finest performance since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Yes, Ratchett was stabbed to death in his car during the night—but by whom? And when? And why? Suspects, clues, and twists all bombard our Belgian in salvos that are both engaging and dark, tragic and amusing, all leading up to an emotional and satisfying conclusion.

Given the lackluster film adaptations of books that have come out this year (Both The Snowman and It butchered the excellent stories they were based on, in this reviewer’s opinion) I went into this with somewhat low expectations. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by and large. Each of the suspects is played with expertise and brevity, as the actors use the relatively small amount of screentime to make a lasting impression (Josh Gadd, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr. in particular deliver outstanding performances). The cinematography also far surpasses the typical popcorn-seller, featuring incredible crane shots of the train and the murder scene, fast exciting cuts during the action, and the rare good use of Dutch angles to contrast the characters with the train that is tilted diagonally on its side.

As many contemporary adaptations of mysteries tend to do, the movie moves with almost exaggerated haste. This can sometimes work to the movie’s benefit, making it a puzzle that is interesting and fascinating to return to for multiple viewings (for example see Thomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Here, the rapid pace doesn’t particularly improve the story, but it hardly works to its detriment either. That said, several interrogation scenes fly by, particularly the one with Penelope Cruz’s nun, and the German cook. Another minor critique is that the bright and somewhat garish color palette of the film is more reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film than a dark murder saga. Of course, some people enjoy Wes Anderson films and their bright colors, in the same way some people enjoy setting fires, or killing cats and looking at their insides, and to such people these moments will probably be fun. For me they were not.

While it isn’t a masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express is a fun time at the movies. I would give it a 7.5/10.