We rarely get whodunits these days. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that according to flickchart.com, there have only been five whodunits released this decade not including “Murder on the Orient Express.” And among those five (according to flickchart) is the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, “Sabotage.” I haven’t seen it, but the trailer certainly reveals more of a grungy action movie rather than a whodunnit.
The heyday of the murder mystery was perhaps the late ’50s through the mid ’70s with classics like “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Sleuth” and the original “Murder on the Orient Express.” And those films had big names behind the camera including Billy Wilder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sidney Lumet. But it’s a genre that’s largely been absent in the past 20 years.
That’s why I was excited to see Kenneth Branagh’s latest, “Murder on the Orient Express” which is based on an Agatha Christie novel and has been adapted several times before this latest iteration.
Branagh directs and stars as Hercule Poirot who is, according to himself, “probably the greatest detective in the world.” Eager for some alone time following another successful case, he gets a ride on the Orient Express by chance from an old friend.
But the lavish ride doesn’t last long as an avalanche blocks the train leaving the passengers stranded for a short time. Boredom is the least of their concerns however as it is discovered that one of the passengers has been murdered. Luckily for them, Poirot is still probably the greatest detective in the world.
The beginning of this film is very light on its feet. Branagh sets a tone initially that feels energetic, ernest and a throwback to screwball films from the past. I was skeptical of Branagh in the role but he quickly endears himself to the part and that spectacular mustache he’s wearing.
Once he boards the train, we meet the rest of the stellar cast which includes Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe and Josh Gad.
With such a great ensemble, how would there be enough time to develop all of them? The answer is, we wouldn’t because Branagh is the star. Following the murder, Poirot must do what he does best which is gather the evidence, interview the suspects and deduce the information to solve the puzzle.
Seeing him work is compelling and Branagh maintains a bit of levity throughout the proceedings, but it’s nowhere near as fun as the earlier scenes. The energy quite literally stalls after the train stops and the tone shifts. This shift is where the film falters because of course a murder is quite serious, but there’s never really a sense of dread or fear because the film has been loose up to that point.
As the pieces of the puzzle start to form, the guessing game begins and that can be detrimental if you don’t really know any of the characters to begin with. But that’s sort of the point because Branagh doesn’t want you to know them because that might reveal the killer.
So it’s sort of a Catch-22 for Branagh and screenwriter, Michael Green. The concept and structure are more important than character development in a film like this, but in doing so, they’ve undermined the story by having the supporting characters so one-note. Why cast a great actress like Olivia Colman if she’s barely going to speak in the film?
The only time we get to see layers to each character is when Poirot peels them away during his interviews. This gets repetitive after a while and it reduces the other actors to giving nothing more than suspicious reaction shots.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is gorgeously shot and the costume design is excellent, but the overall momentum of the film is undermined by a structure too convoluted for its own good. The ending is quite preposterous and it sort of undermines Poirot as a character.
You might have a good time seeing a genre that’s been long dormant, but afterwards you might be asking yourself, what was the point to all of it?