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


Connor Bynum // Film Critic


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

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.