Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express isn’t so much a runaway train as a casual elegant glider; it doesn’t chug on a track so much as it drifts across a proscenium. There is ample elegance on display in this, the director’s first foray into 65mm filmmaking since 1996’s Hamlet. Yet that very style, opulent and gorgeous though it clearly is, seems to work against what occurs on the screen. Everything is just so, with actors moving in lockstep with the ever-gliding camera, every beat ticking like clockwork – all of which makes for a lovely experiment in meticulous design but doesn’t for a single moment resemble a sexy or scintillating mystery.
The precision with which the film is organized is no doubt to align with its protagonist, Hercule Poirot, the famous mustachioed Belgian detective and centerpiece character in Agatha Christie’s literary canon. Poirot is a finicky purist, disturbed by even the slightest off-kilter cosmetic detail. Branagh plays Poirot in a performance that wonderfully embodies his whimsical assiduousness. “Good is good and bad is bad,” he declares near the film’s beginning, clearly portending that the moral lines are about to get tangled. Murder on the Orient Express is the story of how Poirot’s carefully controlled black-and-white worldview takes on messier shades, yet Branagh’s style remains curiously fastidious, like the palette fails to keep pace with its colors.
An expansive group of venerated actors fill out this deep ensemble of potential suspects aboard the luxurious international train of the film’s title, on which someone is murdered in the first class compartment, sending the passengers into a frenzied paranoia. Somehow the film manages to waste every single of one of them, relegating a cast as impressive and varied as Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi to at most a single standout scene apiece, if not merely a few stray lines and a handful of suspicious eye shifts. One after another, these famous faces appear, generating a constant “Hey, it’s…” effect on the audience, only to fade into the lavish production design when there’s nothing else for them to do.
Clearly, these actors didn’t sign on to be the film’s sole focus, but rather to take part in a prestigious reimagining of legendary source material. On the basis of how this narrative plays out on screen, however, Murder on the Orient Express doesn’t seem an ideal candidate for cinematic adaptation. Such a heavy burden is placed on incessant, verbose explanatory revelations that the film turns into an exposition mill. As Poirot, the one constant throughout a tumult of suspect inquiries that are presented as mini-mysteries inside the larger murder plot, Branagh ably handles the task of reeling off one monologue after another, fully telling us who each character is and what their motives are because the film can’t manage to capably show us.
What the film can show us is lovely but stilted, not a waste but certainly a curious application of 65mm, playing out on a beautifully designed but ultimately flat canvas, so pristinely organized that it feels like a filmed play where the camera can roam the stage but only within strict parameters. Its imagery is so elegant within such a limiting space that it starts to feel at odds with the purpose of its own narrative. Poirot eventually learns to loosen his strict definitions of “good” and “bad”; would that Murder on the Orient Express were to adopt a similar understanding of its style.