• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express feels like a very conscious effort to disprove the notion that “they don’t make them like this any more.”

Lead actor and director Kenneth Branagh clearly relishes the opportunity to create a decidedly retro murder mystery. Murder on the Orient Express might contain a handful of action scenes and copious amounts of computer-generated imagery, but Branagh is very clearly channelling a more classical style of film making. Released in early November, Murder on the Orient Express has the look and the texture of an old-fashioned Christmas television treat; a fantastic ensemble reenacting a classic murder mystery on lavish sets with heightened melodrama.

Like a train in the night…
Or, you know, the day.

Branagh’s imitation is affectionate, but it is also laboured. Murder on the Orient Express feels like a nostalgic homage to the old ensemble-driven melodramas that were a dime-a-dozen, but there is something uncanny about it. Early in the film, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot deduces that a fellow passenger is a dealer in forgeries, passing off unconvincing copies as historic artifacts. There is a sense that Branagh is attempting something similar, trying to construct something with the texture of a more classic piece of cinema, but without any of the spirit or the energy.

Murder on the Orient Express is charming and engaging, its enthusiasm for its premise and setting infectious in places. However, it also as lifeless as the corpse at the centre of the mystery.

Cold case.

It is immediately obvious that Branagh has a great deal of affection for the trappings of Murder on the Orient Express. There is a reason that Murder on the Orient Express has endured as one of Agatha Christie’s most popular novels, and there is a reason why it has been so frequently adapted. It is essentially an excuse to trap a collection of strong actors together on some impressive period sets, and allow them to bounce off one another.

As a director, Branagh loves the opportunities presented by Murder on the Orient Express. His camera adores the physical sets. A lot of Murder on the Orient Express is created on computer, from the mountain pass surroundings to the period-specific skylines of Jerusalem and Istanbul. However, the train itself represents a material object in this sea of computer-generated wizardry. It is a standing set, and Murder on the Orient Express lavishes its attention upon that physical space.

Turkey shoot.

Branagh has never been an especially showy director in terms of composition and framing. However, most of his stronger directorial decisions in Murder on the Orient Express are designed to emphasis that the cabin actually exists, that it was built as a set. In one early long take, the camera tracks Poirot through the train from the outside as he encounters a number of soon-to-be suspects. One examination of the murder scene is shot from about, panning through walls to follow characters on the move. Towards the end, a long take moves through the train.

Murder on the Orient Express loves its cast almost as much as it loves the train. As with any murder mystery, the supporting cast is largely a collection of familiar archetypes. Given the limited runtime and the sheer volume of suspects, very few of these characters can be fleshed out into fully-formed individuals. Instead, most of the cast have to settle for a single showcase scene. That showcase scene usually comes in the form of an interview between the character in question and the fiendishly clever Belgian detective.

Herculean effort.

Branagh stacks the cast with familiar actors, many of whom he had worked with before. Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi both get small, but memorable roles. Often, Murder on the Orient Express feels more like a collection of disjointed audition pieces than a true ensemble mystery. Then again, perhaps this is the point. Without giving too much away, the plot of Murder on the Orient Express plays into this sense of theatricality and performance.

Although the production values and design ensure that Murder on the Orient Express looks like a big budget blockbuster, it feels like something a lot quainter and more old-fashioned. Its cast often feel like a collection of quirks and eccentricities, the period setting enhancing a sense of nostalgia. Several of the actors play their characters like live action cartoons. The movie occasionally feels like an excuse for veteran performers to play with exotic accents; Willem Dafoe adopts an Austrian accent, while Judi Dench plays a Russian.

A stern Austrian.

Johnny Depp stands out as Samuel Ratchett, his mannered performance feeling of a piece with Captain Jack Sparrow. The character’s face is a collection of scars. The audience does not need to Hercule Poirot to understand who this character is, underneath it all. Ratchett feels like a character cut loose from a thirties gangster movie, defined in the broadest of strokes. It plays like an imitation of a more nuance performance, a thirties and forties cinematic style with the emphasis distorted through eighty years of hazy memories.

This is the biggest problem with Murder on the Orient Express. The film often feels like it is trying too hard to capture the spirit of classic ensemble mysteries, but it is build from warped remembrances. Everything is just a little bit too broad, a little bit too heightened. The memory of the thing is never the thing itself. This is most obvious as Murder on the Orient Express builds towards its climax. The film’s closing scenes revel in the sort of melodrama that its inspirations at least tried to contain.

Carriage return.

This is a shame, because Murder on the Orient Express remains an interesting and compelling story, even if its ending has been dulled somewhat by imitation and repetition. A lot of this is down to the source material. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express reaches for interesting ideas, even if its plotting feels a little contrived and awkward in places. However, the novel endures because it plays with big and broad ideas.

Murder on the Orient Express hints at the possibility of a film franchise built around Hercule Poirot. Even without those hints, Murder on the Orient Express has always been a compelling introduction to the Belgian detective. Despite the fact that Murder on the Orient Express was the eighth novel to feature the iconic investigator, it is a story that engages with Poirot as a character in his own right. It is an existential challenge to the detective in a way that very few mysteries can claim to be.

His usual ice-capades.

Poirot represents a very idealised and old-fashioned worldview. The introductory scenes of Murder on the Orient Express work hard (perhaps a little too hard) to stress that Poirot is a character who believes in balance and order. He insists that his two eggs at breakfast must perfectly match one another, flustered at the fact that the same hen can produce two different-shaped eggs. He repeatedly admonishes characters for not straightening their tie. His deductive method consists of seeing the world as it should be and subtracting the reality to find the flaw.

Murder on the Orient Express is a compelling narrative in large part because it interrogates Poirot himself. Murder on the Orient Express taps into some of the mid-twentieth century anxieties rippling through Europe in the space between the First and Second World War. The First World War is an open wound for many of the passengers, with at least one have served as a sniper during the conflict. The Second World War looms on the horizon through the racist rhetoric of an Austrian academic who protests “the mixing of the races”, and all the Jewish characters in hiding.

A flash decision.

The train carriage becomes a microcosm of this moral disorder and uncertainty, with Poirot trying to impose order and balance upon a chaotic world. There is no sense of moral certainty here, no feeling of individual culpability. Early in the case, Poirot concedes that the problem is not a lack of evidence, but a surplus. There are too many clues that point in too many different directions. Trapped in the wilderness in an avalanche and surrounded by strangers, Poirot struggles to reconcile his ideas about justice and balance.

This simmering anxiety at once plays into and against the nostalgia of the film. Poirot is a man who believes that everything has its place, that everything can be structured and ordered. He represents a very conservative world view. As such, it fits comfortably with the nostalgic charms of Murder on the Orient Express. However, the story also hinges upon challenges to Poirot’s perspective, attacks upon his fundamental assumptions. Murder on the Orient Express is too earnest in its affection for the period trappings to subvert and undercut them.

Trained actors.

The result is a film that is at once sincere and endearing, but also curiously lifeless and staid. Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t exactly dispel the notion that “they don’t make them like this anymore”, but it at least settles upon “… although some people do try.”

2 Responses

  1. It reminds me of “Earthquake”, “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure” where an all-star cast and pretty sets were meant to distract you from how familiar the plot was. I don’t think there’s anyone here I really want to see. Except that train is calling me in. And that train goes to lovely places. Sigh. Going. Parking brain in neutral and will pick it up on the way home. I enjoyed reading your review. Heck, I probably enjoyed it more than I will enjoy the actual film.

    • Thanks Greer! Yep, it has that sort of “cram it full of recognisable actors and hope that carries it” vibe that informs a lot of old-school sixties and seventies films.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: