Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Review
"Murder on the Orient Express" is directed by Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella, Thor) who also stars in the film as the famous detective, Hercule Poirot. The ensemble of suspects includes Penelope Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Josh Gad (Frozen), Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands), Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Smash). " From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man's race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again". With such a stellar ensemble, it will be hard for "Murder on the Orient Express" to derail...or will it?
Warning - this review contains spoilers
Expectations were high for this film; I have been looking forward to it since its cast started to come together. The ensemble blends established, high-calibre actors (Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer) with Hollywood's most current stars (Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad). Not only was it disappointing to discover that many members of this stellar cast failed to deliver good performances, it was also unfortunate to find out that the film lacked a sense of mystery or any excitement whatsoever. Yes, "Murder on the Orient Express" may be one of the biggest snooze-fests of the year and also one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Luckily, it has some redeeming qualities to stop it from becoming a complete trainwreck but this is a train I have no interest in boarding again.
It is hard to pick parts of the film that are inherently bad or innately good. Beginning with an area that skews more positive- the cinematography and overall visuals are often well done, there are some beautiful shots. Branagh pairs up with his usual cinematographer once again, Haris Zambarloukous and while his shots are occasionally alluring, too often does the film feel like it is failing to capture the elegance and lavishness of the Orient Express- surprisingly, there is not even a brief moment where the film tries to convey the beauty of the world famous train...it could be any train going anywhere. The use of green screen is also very obvious during the scenes where the characters have disembarked from the train which made the film feel less stylish and sophisticated and more cheap and substandard. However, some of the shots (that were likely computer generated) of the train stranded in the snow are admittedly quite stunning. Zambarloukous and Branagh do try and experiment with the variety of shot types they use (there's an unusual scene that takes place completely from a birds-eye angle), I don't think it quite worked. If "Murder on the Orient Express" wanted to be effectively stylish, it could have played around with lighting, colours and music. Even though I was of two minds on how they marketed this film, the trailers certainly promised a much more stylish and slick end result.
I'll give this film credit for ending on a high note- the last 10 minutes really challenged how I was feeling about the rest of the film. "Murder on the Orient Express" runs for just shy of 2 hours but for most of that time, I felt bored, uninterested yet always hopeful that things were going to turn around. I found the first 15 minutes awfully unnecessary and I acknowledge it was used as a way to demonstrate Poirot's genius detective skills but I think most people going to see "Murder on the Orient Express' are familiar with either Agatha Christie, Poirot or can work out that the film is going to include a detective. The train finally departs and I hoped that things would start rolling; How wrong...the first part of the journey is so obviously used to develop the character of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) before he get murdered a few scenes later; What's even worse is that the character is portrayed in a negative manner so when it is revealed that he is the murderer's victim, the audience just do not care. So the murder has occurred...now the ball can finally start rolling? No...well it does, just in a very uninteresting way; Each character gets questioned but seconds after each suspect opens their mouth, it is easy to tune out of what they are saying because everything is either too vague or too detailed.
Amidst all of this, the film introduces a previous case about the Armstrong family that each character somehow ties to with Ratchett being the uncaught killer. At this moment in time, I was sure that this was just an incredibly dumb film that expected the audience to be convinced that a group of strangers all conveniently happened to be linked to the same crime case. Then the truth is revealed that it was one orchestrated plan that every passenger was in on- they all wanted justice for the victim Ratchett killed in the past so plotted to kill him themselves. I thought that this was a great twist, I didn't see it coming and it worked. However, credit does not go to writer Michael Green for this, it goes to Agatha Christie who wrote the entire story in 1934. Yes, Green was able to keep the secret twist hidden and effectively reveal it in his adaption but this was the best part of the film and I cannot recommend this version of "Murder on the Orient Express" based on its twist as every version (and I'm sure there are better ones than this) includes the same shocking revelation. What is the biggest mystery about this entire film? How Michael Green, writer of one of the year's best, "Blade Runner 2049"...wasn't able to write something just as great.
It is a brave move to put yourself at the centre of a film you are directing- Kenneth Branagh does just that with "Murder on the Orient Express"; Not only does he direct the film but he stars at the lead character, Poirot. It is very easy to call somebody pretentious and vain when they do something like this and I always try to steer away from that judgement. However, this is so clearly a vanity project for Branagh. This is made obvious as the film ends and Poirot gets called away to another of Christie's famous cases; Doors are wide open for a sequel so if "Murder on the Orient Express" is financially successful, Branagh has secured himself another job...in his own movie. Maybe if Branagh had focused less on this being a vehicle for his career and more on the lavish and stylish film that was promised, it could have been a great film. I won't hate on Branagh too much as whilst I was unsure about his performance at first, I really warmed to him and understood what he was doing with the character. He also gets praise for being able to hold the accent for the entirety of the film. If there is a sequel, I'm more than happy for Branagh to return as Poirot but possibly the film would benefit from a somebody new in the director's chair? I think David Fincher would be a great choice.
This is an impressive cast on paper yet most of them fail to deliver with their performances. Daisy Ridley got her career off to a promising start with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" but I'm starting to think she got cast in the right role at the right time. Ridley's Mary has quite a lot to do in this film but every scene she was in got harder and harder to watch as it became clear that she was not a good fit with the character or material. It felt like Mary should have been older; Daisy Ridley is 25 but she does not look or sound it so I was just not convinced by the maturity of her role. Luckily for Ridley, I love 'Rey' but maybe she should stick to Star Wars. Somebody else who failed to impress was Michelle Pfeiffer- I can't tell if it was a creative decision to make her character so eccentric and dramatic but her performance felt forced and insincere. After the revelation, I did think that her performance was possibly genius and that she seemed false because all of the characters were lying to Poirot, and she was the conductor..but then I thought about her earlier scenes and some of them were really bad. I was far from impressed with Leslie Odom Jr., from his first scene to his last, he had some really weak moments; When delivering the line [paraphrasing] "why aren't you dead yet?", it was laughably bad. Johnny Depp fails to make a memorable impression which could possibly be the worst thing somebody could say about Depp who used to be known for his scene-stealing performances. Depp's performance is vanilla and as uninteresting as the film itself. I thought Penelope Cruz did a nice yet forgettable job; Judi Dench had some hilarious lines and was one of the best; The rest of the cast were either forgettable or their performance was not outstanding in anyway. Finally, Josh Gad, who has been promoting the film quite heavily since the production stages- Gad is desperately trying to show he's got range and can play a serious character; Gad moves away from being the comic relief but his scenes (and there are fewer than expected) are in-line with the other forgettable cast members. An impressive cast that do not deliver.
In terms of tone, it would be expected that a mystery-thriller feels either tense or mysterious; "Murder on the Orient Express" feels dull and lifeless. The film does not do a good job of engaging the audience and because there is no hard evidence against any of the suspects, it's hard for audience members to even come up with their own theories; It's also really hard to try and analyse or translate what the suspects are saying because some of them are just so vague or speak in such a formal manner- I don't even think many clues are dropped along the way so watching the film back wouldn't even help, it's all revealed through unseen flashbacks at the end. I did notice the score (by Patrick Doyle) a few times but I think the music could have aided in heightening the tension more than it did. The way the film is shot is also not very atmospheric which stops any mood from being conveyed.
"Murder on the Orient Express" could be 2017's biggest missed opportunity. The best thing about this film is that it makes me want to go and buy the book to read this story in all its glory because I don't think this adaption has done it justice at all. It may have been a mistake for Branagh to direct and star in this film as he may have mastered the performance but I think the overall film lacks a stylistic vision...something that was ultimately tacked onto the marketing campaign to convince people to buy tickets. A mystery without a sense of mystery. A thriller without much thrill. "Murder on the Orient Express" is boring and saves all of its excitement for the last 10 minutes. The promising ensemble cast cannot save this film from derailing, board (or bored) "Murder on the Orient Express" at your own risk.
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