Kenneth Branagh is pulling double duty as director and star in Murder on the Orient Express, based on the legendary Agatha Christie novel; he should have focused solely on directing, as the film feels a bit too indulgent, and is plagued with pacing issues from top to bottom. The enormous cast does provide terrific bright spots throughout, but even when all is said and done you can’t help but think: what if?
Murder on the Orient Express starts off breezy, witty and full of verve as we meet our eccentric cast. Before long, however, once the luscious locomotive is snowbound in the mountains, the plot becomes bogged down with train semantics before leading into the murder and, eventually, a satisfying, albeit long-winded reveal. Branagh owns the show as the Hercule Poirot: awkward, direct, and the greatest sleuth in the world. The best scenes in the film involve Poirot’s idiosyncrasies, and Branagh the director also manages to keep Johnny Depp in check.
The casting of Depp is a deft touch, and possibly even an attempt for the actor to embrace his unlikable real-life persona; it’s easy to hold contempt for the character he plays here, the gangster Edward Ratchet. Michelle Pfeiffer tries hard but ultimately feels unbelievable as the flighty Caroline Hubbard. Pfeiffer has those angular features and a steely gaze that tilts towards the evil side. No matter how much she smiles… the eyes don’t lie.
Star Wars has made a mega-star out of Daisy Ridley, but the young actor could use more seasoning before stepping out. Some actors have a presence and eat up the screen, but with this role Ridley seemed timid and becomes easily swallowed up by the picture surrounding her.
Once Willem Dafoe’s Gerhard Hardman lets his guard down, it’s clear this was what the movie needed from the start. It would have never worked for the story, but Dafoe has an undeniable presence and an ability to stand out anywhere in anything; he should have stood out even more. Penélope Cruz is another actor who can dominate the screen, but somehow Branagh figures out a way to blend her in with the wallpaper.
Murder on the Orient Express has this grand, epic, blockbuster feel to it, but every time Branagh pans the camera to the CGI landscape or CGI train shot, intimacy dissipates. In fact, Tom Bateman’s character, Bouc, even gives an excellent speech about the adventure of a long train ride. Sadly, the film never heeds Bateman’s words. There is no tight, cramped feeling at any moment, and this lack of claustrophobia steals from the potential drama of the murder mystery and the frustration the characters involved.
The movie runs just under two hours, and if Branagh had cut even 10-minutes here and there from the film it could have cleaned up clear pacing issues. Branagh has assembled a cast with great potential, but somewhere along the way it seems he got lost in the scope of the film instead of focusing on the details.
Like Hercule Poirot would have done.
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