Movie Review: ‘MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS’ steams ahead of character, remains a delightful voyage

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Connor Bynum // Film Critic

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth BranaghPenélope CruzWillem DafoeJosh GadJohnny DeppLeslie Odom Jr.Michelle PfeifferJudi Dench and Daisy Ridley

Anyone who’s ever taken a high school theater class, is likely to be familiar with the tried and true whodunit formula. Everyone gets to wear period style clothing, give little references to current events of the time, and, obviously, speak in a British accent. Odds are that this would not be the case were it not for Agatha Christie’s mystery novels of renowned detective Hercule Poirot.

Inspired by one of her most famous works, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS accurately captures the essence of the classic novel and is sure to please murder-mystery fans, even if it ventures down a safe track.

Kenneth Branagh is what one might call a classical filmmaker. His apparent infatuation with romanticizing a “simpler” time can be seen in all of his films from 1996’s HAMLET to the recent live-action rendition of CINDERELLA. Yet, this can often come at the expense of the films he makes. While certainly enjoyable, they often tend to take few risks and end up offering little in terms of staying power. If nothing else, Branagh is clearly having the time of his life in both the actor’s and director’s chair.

Set in post World War I Europe, Detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is never able to find a moment’s rest as he is constantly commissioned to solve the latest case. While begrudgingly commuting to one of these cases on the titular Orient Express train, Poirot finds solace in a somewhat restful three-day commute free of mysteries to be solved. And then someone is murdered… It is then up to Poirot to question every passenger on board to find the killer among them.

Kenneth Branagh mustache this train’s passengers some questions. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Branagh surrounds himself with a spectacular cast that he unfortunately leaves many of on the sidelines. As is often the case with ensemble films, the characters are reduced to the attributes that separate them from their peers. For example, Johnny Depp plays a sleazy gangster and Judi Dench plays British royalty. Go figure. Neither give a poor performance, but are clearly in their comfort zones.

Standout characters include Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), who are all given multiple scenes to flesh out their characters as well as their motives. As for the rest of the star-studded cast, their talent is sadly derailed.

In spite of an underused cast, the film is able to gradually increase the tension on board as the passengers grow more restless and paranoid of those around them. It is at its most enjoyable when Poirot meticulously pieces together the puzzle as time is running out. However, all of this momentum is brought to a screeching halt during the last twenty minutes as each and every character trudges their way through their obligatory “motive monologues,” made all the more monotonous by Patrick Doyle’s uninspired and repetitive score. These moments where everyone reveals their secrets while necessary to tie up loose ends, has become nothing short of murder mystery cliché. Yet, there is a bitter sense of irony in faulting a film for committing to a trope, which its source material is responsible for cementing into the genre in the first place.

Ultimately, Branagh is able to craft a thought-provoking and charming film that is certainly worth the price of a ticket. Just expect a few bumps along the way.

Grade: B-

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens nationwide on Friday (11/10).

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.