By: Mark Farmer, Entertainment Writer
Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express released in theaters this past weekend, starring Branagh himself. The story, based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel of the same name, follows Detective Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who must help solve a murder that takes place while traveling on the Orient Express.
Agatha Christie’s works have been adapted and re-adapted time and time again, and Murder on the Orient Express is no exception- In film, television, radio, and even video games, Christie’s famous murder-mystery has been depicted in many forms by many people. It’s no surprise, too- Christie’s writing is timeless, and as such, Murder on the Orient Express is truly a classic. It’d be unfair (and dull) for me to write a critique on a work that has been rehashed so many times, so I want to instead focus this piece towards how Branagh adapts the work for the screen, rather than any piece of the story or its plot.
Kenneth Branagh is not only an experienced actor, but also an experienced director, starting in 1988 with Twelfth Night. His work on 1989’s Henry V earned him Oscar nominations for both Best Actor and Best Director, and he later earned another nomination for his writing and directing 1996’s Hamlet. His most recent efforts have been much more mainstream, with films under his belt such as Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and Cinderella, and Murder on the Orient Express fits right into that lineage.
The main draw for this iteration is the film’s star-studded cast, featuring performances from Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and more. All in all, each cast member hands in an excellent performance, with some of my favorites being Gad, Depp, and Dafoe. The stand-out misstep here is Pfeiffer, whose scenes feel a whole step behind everyone else in terms of acting prowess. Pfeiffer definitely has the experience, but for some reason turns in one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen from her filmography. Beyond her, however, everyone else surprisingly uses their brief screentime to show off some stellar acting.
Another surprising win Murder on the Orient Express is its cinematography, an important aspect for a film adaptation of a novel. Adding a visual element to a story allows for complete creative control on what to do with the camera, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos adds plenty of visual flair with his camera operation. Scenes filmed with an overhead view have an almost clinical sense to them, as Detective Poirot combs the scene for evidence and pieces together what may have happened. Other scenes benefit from added intensity as the camera dollys back and forth while characters pace around the set. The cinematography isn’t as good as something Hoyte van Hoytema or Roger Deakins might be able to make, but I was really surprised at just how well it captivated my attention.
Apart from these aspects, though, the movie doesn’t really excel in any other categories. The music is fine, the writing is fine, the editing is fine, the sets are fine. It doesn’t do a ton with the medium that you can’t find in the book. Which is okay- those watching the film are going to be much more invested in the story than the editing or music, so as long as it isn’t invasively bad (apart from Pfeiffer, it never really is), then the movie is worth the watch. Audiences who haven’t seen or read Christie’s original tale are sure to be surprised by the film’s many twists and turns, even if the story is over 80 years old. While the movie may not take advantage of the medium too much, it still makes the story more accessible, and its star-studded cast makes it well worth the sub-2-hour runtime.