Nutshell: Gorgeous visuals, a stellar cast, and a killer mystery adds up to a promising film. Though things tend to sputter midway through, and the plot focuses a bit too heavily on Poirot, it all gets wrapped up nicely. Plus, that scenery! Grade: B
“The killer is mocking me. Good. His first mistake.”
Story: Hercule Poirot, the self- and widely proclaimed Greatest Detective In The World, is long overdue for a bit of R&R. Unfortunately his restful train ride from Aleppo to Istanbul becomes work when a passenger is murdered. Should be easy work; every single person on the train seems to have disliked the recently deceased…
Genre I’d put it in: Lighthearted Mystery Reboots
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, and the second film adaptation (after the 1974 film directed by Sidney Lumet).
Gotta say: Mystery stories can fall into all sorts of sub-genres. Here, Kenneth Branagh takes the whodunit and ads a dash of whimsy to Agatha Christie’s tale. Good thing he decided to go with a dash of humor, as the screenplay from Michael Green (Logan, Alien: Covenant) hiccups for a good part of the film.
Branagh certainly enjoys the hell out of playing Poirot. From the double-mustache to the way the detective measures his eggs, it seems as though the actor has been wanting to dive into this character for quite some time. And he does an excellent job of portraying the detective as nobody’s fool, while still managing to take a few deflating shots at the character’s expense.
Unfortunately, as a director Branagh takes the love for the character and thrusts him onscreen to take the lion’s share. Which leaves many of the other cast members get the short end of the stick. C’mon, who doesn’t want to see more of Dame Judi Dench as the Downton Abbey-esque Princess Dragomiroff? At least we get a scene where Sir Derek Jacobi gets to shine for more than a few minutes. And lots of Johnny Depp, Johnny Depp-ing. Seriously, that man cannot stay away from a quirky character.
The two performers that really stood out were Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. as a governess and a doctor respectively…and who may mean more to each other than they let on. These two actors are able to make the most out of their limited time onscreen (it helps that these two seem to have the most screen time here, second only to Branagh), and it also gives the film a message of tolerance that’s timely even today. Well, especially today. These two characters balance Willem Dafoe’s Gerhard Hardman (a re-imagining of an original Christie character), a man who never seems to miss an opportunity to show his distaste for “others”.
It’s apparent that Branagh wanted to tip his hat to Lumet’s version of Orient Express, insofar as Branagh filled his cast with top shelf acting talent. But as the glorious visuals pass by – the story does play out on a train after all – I couldn’t help but notice that the middle of the film isn’t quite fully cooked. Haris Zambarloukos’s gorgeous cinematography can distract me from time to time, but all the beauty in the world couldn’t help scenes that either drag on too long (usually when Poirot is leading them), or feel slapdash (typically when the detective is not onscreen).
The ensemble cast is game for some fun, and who wouldn’t be? Beautiful costuming, period dialogue, and opulent sets. The cast’s enjoyment helps gloss over the times when, like the titular train, this film goes off the rails. But the climax lets Branagh really sink his teeth in, and simply seeing all those incredible actors lined up in a snowy train passage was enough to make me swoon.
So go for the fun and the visuals, and never mind the bounces.
#Protip: Like to take a trip on the real Orient Express? ME TOO. If you’ve got the time and the cash, you can do just that.