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Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most popular mystery novels ever written, but it's been over 40 years since the story was adapted for the big screen. Kenneth Branagh now takes on the project as both the director and the star, and while the classic mystery isn't entirely without its enjoyable moments, there's a lot that keeps it from reaching the heights to which it aspires.
Hercule Poirot is a brilliant detective. We know this because both he, and everybody else, will tell you that. The brilliant detective gets called away from his holiday to solve yet another baffling case, much to his personal dismay. In order to get where he needs to be, he takes the last seat on board the Orient Express in Istanbul on its way to Paris. He shares his train car with a variety of characters, a doctor, a governess, a countess and even a Russian princess. However, after a small avalanche knocks the Orient Express off the tracks at the same time that one of the passengers is found murdered, it's up to Poirot to discover which passenger is guilty of murder, while stuck in fairly close quarters with all of them.
The cast of Murder on the Orient Express is second to none. In addition to Kenneth Branagh, we have Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr, and Olivia Colman. This list of actors is phenomenal, and seeing them all in one place is fairly impressive. Seeing them do anything interesting would have been amazing.
Make no mistake, Murder on the Orient Express is a Kenneth Branagh movie. He's the director. He's in every scene. He's in practically every shot. Branagh isn't part of the ensemble, he leads it, and while his interpretation of Hercule Poirot will likely upset Agatha Christie purists, he's engaging enough to carry the story from beginning to end. This is good, since nobody else ever has the chance to be even mildly interesting. The movie is told entirely from Poirot's perspective, and while that prevents the audience from having any more information than Poirot has, it also prevents the audience from getting to know who any of these other people are. The other players are suspects in the plot and nothing more. I couldn't tell you the name of a single character in the movie beyond Poirot and the victim, the other guy whose name gets used the most. We don't spend enough time with any of them and nothing any of them does is memorable. Most of them don't get much beyond an introduction and an interrogation scene. We only ever get enough detail about the other characters as to provide us the information the plot requires we have. The mystery is compelling enough to make you curious who the killer is, but that's different than saying you'll care who the killer is. It's impossible to become invested in any of them.
If nothing else, Murder of the Orient Express is lovely to look at. Shot on 65-millimeter film, the movie combines the sort of filmmaking usually reserved for massive epics with a story told almost entirely in a single location. That location is certainly lovely, if a little CGI heavy, as the train proves to be every bit as ornate as its classic name implies. Though even this isn't perfect, as the camera occasionally decides to go for these odd overhead shots that seem to be trying to draw attention to the confined space, but only end up making you dizzy.
Murder on the Orient Express is a serviceable enough mystery, but it likely would have been so without the all-star cast and the epic mustache. What we end up with is far less than the sum of its parts.