Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express
By: James Fleckenstein
Murder on the Orient Express is one of the many book adaptations that Hollywood deemed a “safe bet”. Popular source material, a strong history with audiences, and a plot that plays it safe yet attempts to bring new murder-mystery concepts to audiences who expect something novel, but not too novel. With such a strong concept, Murder on the Orient Express may go down as a great example of a film who had so much to start with, yet falters so much in translation.
To begin, the film gathered a strong cast, bordering on ensemble. Kenneth Branagh, who both directs and stars as the famed detective Hercule Poirot, is no stranger to the big screen in either role. Yet in focusing on casting the character as a brilliant detective who attributes his skills to an OCD-like condition, he forgets a core aspect of acting: communication to his audience. Branagh, in staying to the source material, attempts a thick Belgian accent, and his whispered thoughts and explanations are spoken with such speed and an almost careless demeanor that it becomes comically easy to lose track of the film’s mystery as it develops. The plot starts off simple enough. A gangster (played by Johnny Depp, who played his role with such elegance that it is almost a sin that he is killed twenty minutes in) riding upon a train bound for London has been murdered, and with the train stranded in the snowy mountains, it is up to Hercule Poirot to solve the mystery. The other suspected characters hold themselves well, which is expected for greats such as Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Judi Dench. Those who can process the whispered accent will find great enjoyment in the hunt. Depending on one’s viewpoint on deduction and justice however, (and my wish to not spoil anything) this brain-knotting glee might be squashed by the film’s final moments, bordering on fantasy.
Aesthetically, the film simultaneously triumphs in some less acknowledged areas, while failing in some of the more noticeable. The costume design for each the characters is great, as each character’s framing and styling makes it easy to recognize and remember the list of suspects. The cultural differences of each character, such as their accents (save for Branagh’s), habits, and speech patterns, only further their dimensions as truly plot-essential entities. As for the visuals, they are glaringly terrible. I have not seen such terrible use of CGI backgrounds, which are reminiscent of an early 2000’s Sci-Fi special. The train and surrounding scenery reminded me of The Polar Express, and to see the actors standing inside the crude CGI locomotive only made the effects worse. The film’s score also manages to be simultaneously annoying and ultimately forgettable. I could not hum to any single tune present, (like most new major motion pictures) yet I could easily articulate how they ruined certain scenes. Triumphant music drowned out character speech, only adding to the present accent problem. It should not be a chore to follow a plot. I should not have to try and read lips and decipher uncovered clues through both a thick fake-accent and generic uplifting orchestral pieces. Background music must stay in the background. To acknowledge it is to find error in it.
Murder on the Orient Express is not unwatchable. On the contrary, mystery is a joy to have unfold, and the pacing is excellent. The stars try their best to fit their roles, and they succeed for the most part. But for every positive this movie started with, another was added in post. This “safe bet” may have focused too much on what was already had, and not what was needed. A movie so concerned with safety that it ends up only injuring the viewer, who leaves the film focused more on what went wrong, than what was planned to go right.