Film Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Can’t Keep the Train on Track

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In the land of remakes, some films feel untouchable to the cinematic lens.  When it comes to novels, they can often feel “unfilmable” as the narrative, and thematic elements are so grand that they cannot successfully translate to the silver screen.  “Murder on the Orient Express” has probably sat somewhere in the middle of these two comparisons, as Agatha Christie’s words and ideas are deeply rooted in tales that speak to the soul.  Kenneth Branagh‘s attempt to bring the classic to our modern society fails to find a natural rhythm, perhaps leaning towards one of the most blatant examples of “over direction.”  There’s a good movie in there somewhere, but the clumsy storytelling lacks focus or cohesion, relying too heavily on a finale that can stall out because of the lack of work put forth prior.

Murder on the Orient Express,” tells the story of thirteen stranded strangers on a lavish train where a man has been murdered.  With the world’s greatest detective Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh) on board, it becomes a race to solve the puzzle before the murderer can strike again.

Assembling an all-star cast of A-list stars, Kenneth Branagh’s film doesn’t lack on the talent department.  Standing out from its long list of players is Michelle Pfeiffer‘s funny and feisty Caroline who snatches all attention when shared with another actor.  Included in this boat is Penelope Cruz‘s tender-hearted Pilar Estravados, who tackles an Oscar-winning role with grace and utterly reinvents it.  Josh Gad‘s angry and distraught Hector MacQueen manages some moments, despite a narrative cement block plaguing his every word.

Notice that I didn’t mention Oscar-winner Judi Dench, Oscar-nominees Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, and the gifted thespians Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Daisy Ridley, and Olivia Colman? You’ll feel just as perplexed as to how and why this train derails so quickly.

Branagh as a director wants the film to feel big and boisterous a la “Hugo” but ends up feeling minuscule like “All the King’s Men” (the remake).  He gives the keys to cinematographer Haris Zambarioukos, who seems dead set on just framing the players for a police lineup that the audience can throw accusations towards.  And while the costume work of Alexandra Byrne has a presence and Jim Clay‘s detailed production design is eye-catching, both their appeals fizzle out early on.

Screenwriter Michael Green, who by ordinary standards has had a fantastic 2017 writing year, responsible for penning “Logan” and “Blade Runner 2049,” has seemed to lose all focus on how to tell a story.  With Agatha Christie’s blueprints in place, which peaks out no matter what mistakes are being made, it’s mindboggling that he can’t modernize or give a fresh update to a classic story.  Santa Claus may be considering to put Green on his “naughty list” (alongside his script for “Alien: Covenant”) for creating a static misfire.

Branagh would have been served better either not directing and/or starring in the remake.  His cartoonish, mustache-twirling detective is so stuck in its era that any person of today fails to connect with his “hunches” and “great detective work.”

Murder on the Orient Express” wastes much of its opportunity to bring itself to a new generation of movie-goers.  With a fine cast mostly wasted, the story is choked out and suffocated by its false attempts to bring mystery and suspense to a story that was already born with it.   Agatha Christie deserves better.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is distributed by 20th Century Fox and opens in theaters on Nov. 10.

GRADE: (★)

Check out the newest Oscar Predictions and see where “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” ranks!

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  • Ryan

    Coming soon: The Santa Claus School of Film Criticism

  • Joey Magidson

    It’s a pretty mediocre movie. Looks nice in 70mm though, I’ll give it that.

  • Phil Scollan

    First off, love you guys, listen to your podcast faithfully every week. You’re a pretty special group.
    Regarding the below, don’t you mean “notice the *inclusion* of”? Are the stars you name not in the movie?

    Notice the omissions of Oscar-winner Judi Dench, Oscar-nominees Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, and the gifted thespians Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Daisy Ridley, and Olivia Colman, and you’ll feel as perplexed as to how this train quickly derails.

    • I think he meant that he was omitting those actors from his list because they weren’t given much to work with.