Saturday, 11 November 2017

Film Review: Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express doesn't quite stay on the tracks

There's a general, inescapable thrill to murder mystery stories. They're very easy to get caught up in as you train your own eye to pick up on minute details and attempt to solve the crime yourself before the film or TV show's lead detective does. Of course, any whodunnit story where you can in fact predict the outcome probably hasn't done its job right, but I'd take a predictable ending over an ending that you just don't care about any day.

In Kenneth Branagh's version of Murder on the Orient Express, the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie's famous novel, this is unfortunately the case. A lot of money has been splashed on this - check out that cast list, and the film looks pretty damn good too - but no number of zeros after a dollar sign can turn a boring film into a lively one. Branagh has taken a classic piece of literature and directed it with the enthusiasm and intrigue of a dead fish floating at the top of the tank. There's just nothing to care about here.

Perhaps a lot of this comes down to Branagh's bizarre fixation on keeping Hercule Poirot in the spotlight, which wouldn't be so awkward if that role wasn't also played by Branagh. Poirot is undeniably the heart and soul of this story, let alone its brain, but with Branagh both behind the camera and in front of it this comes across as somewhat self indulgent. Yes, Poirot needs to be on screen for a lot of this film, but there are very few scenes in this retelling that don't feature him. Supporting characters are relegated to paper thin caricatures, turning an A-list cast into little more than a series of cameos.

As well as under utilising his cast, Branagh's heavy focusing on Poirot has narrative impacts too. When a passenger is found dead on the train, chills should be sent down our spines. When the shocking truth comes out in the final act, our jaws should hit the floor. Instead, you'll just take the information as it is and move on. Branagh, and screenwriter Michael Green, never make us care about this story or the characters that populate it, it's the definition of a half baked piece of work. Everyone here gets the job done and just moves on.

Branagh's direction of the film is flashy, but murder mysteries should rely on subtlety rather than extravagance. He repeatedly frames people through cut glass to distort their reflections - do you get it, because they're all masking their true selves, do you get it - and while the images themselves look nice, they don't add to the impact of the film. Branagh never utilises his claustrophobic setting, the film is less intense than the climax of The Lego Movie - a body has been discovered on a train and one of the passengers, still on board the train, is the killer. How the film manages to turn that premise into something so catastrophically dull is something that will plague my mind for months.

When Branagh does hand the spotlight over to someone else the performances are mostly decent enough. Daisy Ridley proves there is hope for her career outside the Star Wars universe, Penélope Cruz spits out her dialogue with a gleefully enigmatic snarl, Judi Dench and Olivia Colman are reliably in sync with the film's tone. Not everyone here is a runaway success - Michelle Pfeiffer's overacting borders on criminal, while Josh Gad splutters his way through any half serious scene - but a cast this reliable doesn't disappoint. Again, Branagh's refusal to give them all the time they deserve is frustrating.

Murder on the Orient Express should be one of the year's best films with a cast like that taking on this story, but what we have instead is drained of life and devoid of intrigue, a murder mystery where the biggest mystery is how the story wound up this dull. Maybe the ending will surprise you, I have to admit to not seeing it coming - then again, by that point I was more interested in the minutes ticking by on my watch than who the killer would actually turn out to be. This is less whodunnit and more whencanitend.

In A Sentence

Lazily written and sloppily directed, even an A-list cast can't save Kenneth Branagh's woefully dull Murder on the Orient Express.

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