Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is an exciting, engaging film that presents a murder-mystery – and everyone loves a murder-mystery – surrounded by a host of intriguing characters who you want to learn more about – and you will. It’s all wrapped up in a stunning and classic looking experience that delights the eyes and engages the mind. However, is the film able to take the murder-mystery plot and its many characters and suitably expand upon them? Well, let’s ride on down the tracks into my review and see how the films varied offerings hold up, shall we?
Based upon the classic, Agatha Christie novel, the film follows Hercule Poirot – played by Kenneth Branagh – who finds himself on the Orient Express, where he hopes to rest and quiet his mind of the outside world – with only the words of Charles Dickens speaking to him. But of course, rest is not something he will get, as there is a gruesome murder on the train and 12 possible suspects. Clues, suspects and the fear of the killer striking again consume Poirot once again, and only he can be the one to hopefully solve the case.
I’ll be upfront and admit that my knowledge and experience of Agatha Christie and her character, Poirot is not something I am well versed in. Other than a few episodes of the classic, long running Poirot TV show here in the UK and information I have heard tangentially about the famous detective, I don’t really have much knowledge of the source material – including this very famous story. So forgive me if I get anything wrong in relation to the original work. Anyway, onto the film.
I have to start off by talking about just how beautiful this film is. It is said that, director Kenneth Branagh sought out and utilised 65mm Panavision cameras (of which there are only 4 left in the world) to shoot this film – and what a great decision that was. The film is alive with colour that is draped over some incredible locations and sets. Each scene is popping with vibrancy and life. Actors eyes are hypnotizingly alluring. Sets (like the train that they took the time to build in full) are bursting with detail and authenticity. And some of the shots of the sprawling vistas that Poirot travels through are truly stunning. Visually this film is a pure treat for the eyes. But it’s not just your eyes that are treated to, in this film. There’s much more to enjoy.
As you’ve probably seen, if you’ve come across any of the promotional material, the film boasts quite the cast, and thankfully it does not waste that varied and accomplished cast. Though the initial introduction to many of the characters feels a little rushed, there is a clear attempt as the film progresses, to introduce and establish each person individually. It primarily achieves this by giving them one defining quality that is memorable and then building from there. With how many characters there are to keep tabs on and the limited time and space that we, the audience, have to get to know them, this ends up being the best method for shining a light on each passenger (soon to be suspect) on the train.
What I enjoyed about the exploration of the characters was how it was done. We learn of each person from observing them (at first). We see how they interact with other passengers around them or how they act in general and it gives us a sense of who they are. We make our initial judgements – something the film seems to want us to do – and later it will develop them out in a more focused way.
It’s after the murder and Poirot’s investigation begins that we of course begin to get a better insight into who the diverse group of passengers… suspects are. Poirot’s subtle yet information inducing questions slowly reveal more. Our initial surface level knowledge and understanding soon begins to go deeper and bit-by-bit we learn a little more and begin to piece the puzzle together, as we along with Poirot play detective. From a general character standpoint (understanding who they are on a basic level) the film does a pretty good job of establishing who everyone is. That’s so necessary when you have a group of characters this size and in such close quarters to one another.
And the characters are at their best when they are interacting with (being questioned by), Poirot. Branagh gives a commanding performance and it in these scenes in particular where his mental stature really shows. The dialogue in particular is juicy, revealing and oh so satisfying. Seeing an experienced detective choose his questions so deliberately and sneak his way past the lies and into the truth is always satisfying to watch, and the film does that quite often – and it thankfully gives sensible reasoning behind his questions and deductions that don’t feel cheap.
However, I can’t deny that when the film started to move towards its conclusion and Poirot grew closer and closer to revealing the murderer, I felt that I still hadn’t been given everything that the characters had/needed to offer. 2 hours simply wasn’t enough to develop 14 characters, while also delivering a competent, engaging murder-mystery plot, and then all the little things in-between that. An extra 20 or maybe even 30 minutes would have really benefited the film; given it a chance to breathe and expand into more of what were some genuinely interesting and compelling elements.
But in general, this is a cast of actors and characters who all play off of one another really well. When two characters dislike each other, you can feel the genuine disdain pouring out of the screen, or when Poirot is delightfully interacting with an old chum, the air fills with a joyous, welcoming atmosphere. The accolades of nearly all the actors on-screen are varied and long, and so it’s so pleasant to see them all given the chance to have their moment to shine (to be in charge of scenes) and while those moments were brief (sometimes a little too brief) they still got to shine in a beautifully crafted experience.
And of all the characters there are too lightly indulge in, Poirot was the one who had my attention the most, but like all the characters, was someone I wish I was given more of. The characterisation of Poirot in the film was one of the most interesting aspects to me. A man who is tiered and in desperate search of some peace and solitude. But his unmatched skills and inability to let injustice survive made him a tragic hero. I didn’t expect to have this particular emotion about him, but I pitied Poirot. I found myself wanting him to be free of the work that consumed him and to simply enjoy some time to himself, with the activities he adored. I stated earlier that my knowledge of the original source material is basic at best, but if it goes into greater detail on this aspect of Poirot and his story, then I’ll be picking up the book immediately. Because as much as I enjoyed it in this film, it was not given anywhere near the amount of time I would have liked.
Once the murder has occurred and Poirot has been dragged into dealing with it, he transitions into the world-renowned detective. The quiet, polite man became a strutting leader with an unwaveringly keen sense for lies. This side to him was exciting to watch, but it wasn’t what I was most interested in. But the aspect to the character that is always on top form, is of course Branagh. He presents a full-bodied character with varying sides to him. His performance is what you’d expect from an actor of his calibre. So while I did get what I was looking most for, I still thoroughly enjoyed what Branagh did for the character, with his performance. Also, that moustache – to say I’m jealous would be putting it mildly.
But this film probably wouldn’t be anything if it did succeed at one particular aspect: It’s murder-mystery and the handling of it. A murder on a train – confinement and a limited number of suspects and the world’s greatest detective is the one tasked with solving it. That all of course makes for an extremely enticing plot, that deserves to be seen through to its end. And I would say that for the most part, the film does a good job of handling its murder-mystery (in the beginning). It establishes everything well – the set-up is there, and you want to see more of the story unfold. And as Poirot’s investigation unfolded, I was really enjoying the chase – thanks in part to the characters involved. I mean, there’s nothing more captivating than a murder-mystery – you just have to know who done it. But the problem with a good mystery, is that it needs a satisfying, worthy conclusion.
As the film nears the end, it seems to lose hold of the coherence it had shown in the beginning of the investigation. Things go from reasonable, to full-on, in the blink of an eye, and it was quite jarring. After that, the film then seemed to rush through its conclusion. As the mystery is unveiled, and we learn of what truly happened on the Orient Express, multiple names are thrown around and it got a little difficult to keep up with who-was-who and what their connection to the murder-mystery was – it became a little incoherent, to be honest. I was able to put the pieces together in my head by the time the credits rolled, but it wasn’t an effortless thing to do. For me, it took some of the punch and the satisfaction out of the ending.
But it seemed more problematic for some of the audience around me. When walking out, I did what I always like to do: I listened in on other audience members opinions of the film as they discuss it with the people they’re with. There were quite a few people confused and struggling to piece together what had happened and who had done it – this was from multiple groups of people that I heard these complaints/questions.
I would say that for the most part, the film delivers an engaging, engrossing plot – it certainly held my attention. But I do thinks that it robs the audience of a satisfying, comprehensive conclusion. I left the cinema having thoroughly enjoyed what I had watched, but not feeling like I had gotten everything from the film that I had wanted.
But, when I think in full about my experience with the film, I still feel happy in recommending, The Murder on the Orient Express. There’s still much to enjoy and delight in with this film, and it is certainly worth going to see in the cinema (because of how visually wondrous it is). I hope you do make the effort to see it, and I hope you enjoy your time watching it, as much as I did.
I’m really interested to know what you thought of the film and my review of it, so please leave any opinions or feedback in the comments section down below. I’d also appreciate it if you were to follow both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But I’ll finish up now by thanking you for your time and hoping that you have a great day!