Murder mysteries are as old as time. Indeed, perhaps the first murder mystery appeared in the Bible when God asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Of course, we all know that mystery was quickly solved. Spoiler alert, Cain did it. Since then the stories grew more complex, leading all the way up to Agatha Christie’s titular novel, “Murder on the Orient Express.” A novel beloved and adapted many times before and likely will be again.
With the mass number of murder mysteries published and produced since Christie’s novel, its difficult to make the genre fresh, new, and entertaining. There’s nothing new under the sun and the tropes have their own tropes at this point. So, Murder on the Orient Express is a new form of “old hat.” It’s old hat redux. Reliving the old, appreciating it because somewhere deep inside you feel you have to, but leaving the theater knowing you’ve experienced this story before but with a new coat of paint.
For some (like myself), Murder on the Orient Express is wholly new. While maybe you’ve seen plenty of other murder mysteries, knowing every beat and trope in the book, you’ve yet to read or see this particular story. With that in mind, all you have is to review the film on its own merits rather than begrudging yourself for not experiencing it before.
Of the movie itself, Murder on the Orient Express is a solid mystery with a quirky main character, following the tried and true murder mystery formula. It throws in some red herrings, a few false captures, and keeps you guessing up until the third act when you’ll likely roll your eyes and want off the train immediately.
Written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express is about thirteen stranded strangers on a train and the murder that unfolds one night. The great detective Hercules Poirot must discover who did it before they strike again.
Much should be said about the sets, costume design, and overall aesthetic in Murder on the Orient Express. The production crew does a top notch job making the movie look and feel like it’s early time 1930’s time period. Attention to detail can make or break a film and in this case, Poirot would be proud.
Branagh’s direction provides a very upbeat, quirky, and formal narrative style which it seems a story like this needs. While he certainly takes time building up to the eventual murder, he also keeps the pacing on its toes, making sure not to lose the audience’s fading interest. He loves to do long takes. He does them quite often. While in certain cases this camera technique makes perfect sense, especially for a movie mostly set on a train, there are times where instead of it flowing with the story, it almost comes off as distracting and disorienting.
At the same time, Branagh’s high-strung, heavily mustachioed, and perfectionist portrayal of Hercules Poirot anchors the film to its murder mystery genre. Much like Sherlock Holmes, a murder mystery doesn’t quite work unless you have a quirky (or at the very least interesting) detective to take the case. While very little is known about Poirot’s backstory, some of his character attributes keeps the story compelling enough to care at least for a while.
It’s helpful if a murder mystery plot is tied to the death of someone you might actually care about. As the audience, you want justice to be done and you want the murderer found and caught at all cost. In this case, that just didn’t happen. There is no reason to empathize or care for the person who is murdered (of whom I won’t reveal). As more information unfolds, this is for good reason. Still, most of the story you’re left with the mere hook of just wanting to know who did it rather than the drive to have it solved. You’re there but you’re not invested.
While there are moments of intensity, a good portion of the movie is watching Poirot interview people. Murder mysteries require it. That’s a given. On the other hand, it doesn’t excuse the boorishness of it all. A few of the interviews are compelling with new clues provided but overall, it would have helped to breathe more life in the movie than just Poirot conducting interviews.
But, really, all of its slight virtues and vices pale in comparison to the third act. It’s difficult to mention much without giving away huge plot points and spoilers. But, the third act is where the plot train derails completely. For the first two acts, the movie is embedded in realism, making sure you’re believing all of this might have taken place at some time in history. But, suddenly, as the story shifts to the third act it cranks up the melodrama, theatrics, and a scene so ridiculous, bombastic, and silly you’ll either laugh or want to leave. In short, the movie forgot itself and decides it wants to be a Broadway play.
Sadly, that isn’t even the most frustrating part. When the murderer is found and the crime solved, Poirot makes some of the most stupid, unconscionable decisions, creating a very unsatisfying resolution. Usually bad third acts won’t completely ruin a movie but in this case, it simply doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense, and doesn’t fit Poirot’s character.
Murder on the Orient Express does have some things going for it. Branagh’s direction and performance in the film are pretty well done. But the writing is paltry in comparison and falters so hard at the end it ruins many of its virtues. It’s hard to believe murder mystery fans will get much out of this film. So, unless Murder on the Orient Express is a favorite novel, you’re probably better off finding another train.
Photos courtesy of: 20th Century Fox.