I walked into “Murder on the Orient Express” with its mediocre reviews stuck in my head. Rex Reed of the New York Observer calls it “sorry, inferior, unnecessary.” In Vulture, David Edelstein asserts that “we didn’t need another ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’” While I agree with Reed and Edelstein, I maintain that it’s worth watching, as long as you’re unfamiliar with Agatha Christie’s book of the same name.
Kenneth Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a foppish and savant-like private detective. He unwillingly finds himself on the Orient Express, a train between Istanbul and Paris. Poirot and 13 other first class passengers are stranded when an avalanche slightly derails the train near the top of a mountain. They discover one of the other passengers, Johnny Depp’s villainous Ratchett, murdered in the middle of the night. Poirot reluctantly takes on the case and spends the remaining hour and quarter of the two hour run time interviewing everyone in his carriage.
Branagh doesn’t seem to have aspired to make a cerebral murder-mystery. “Murder on the Orient Express” follows a simple, direct chain of events, straightforward enough that I would have a hard time enjoying it on a second watch. The murder clues are set in plain sight; nothing would be better understood through viewing it again. But that’s the point. This movie is at its best when seen for the first time, without holding it to especially high standards. At it’s core, it’s really fun. It doesn’t take anything out of you to figure it out, and the beautiful Computer-Generated Images (CGI) and lavishly upholstered train can be wholly enjoyed.
There isn’t much depth to the characters, with the exception of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Mrs. Hubbard, who lets her tortured past gleam through, only recognizable when the audience knows her truth. The rest of the stars seem almost bored with the film, most notably Daisy Ridley. She seems uncommitted to her role, possibly distracted by the schedule of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Willem Dafoe plays a racist Austrian Professor, managing to be entertaining and nonessential at the same time.
“Murder on the Orient Express” obviously mirrors Robert Zemeckis’ “Polar Express” through its fantastical computer generated mountainous landscapes and the luxurious train itself. However, the parallels go beyond the superficial. The characters have the same wide-eyed mannerisms, if the cast of “Murder” are slightly more murderous, and Poirot undergoes a similar transformation as the boy in “Polar Express.” Instead of getting older and forgetting the wonders of Christmas as child, Poirot wrestles with releasing his old compulsions as a rigid detective in the interest of preserving the humanity of his suspects.
All told, “Murder on the Orient Express” will not stand out as a memorable adaptation of a literary classic, but Branagh hits his target of making a thoughtless, fun movie. It’s absolutely unnecessary, as Reed says, but he missed the point.