Review: The Brilliant Execution of 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Michael Simon ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Contributor
There is nothing quite like a good mystery; watching a story of murder and deception play out amidst a crowded space populated by distinct and interesting characters allows the viewer to just sit back, watch, and enjoy. That is exactly the case here in the fourth film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. From the moment the movie begins, the audience is treated to the grand spectacle of the story and the world around it, with large sweeping shots of the landscapes and moving parts that surround our characters as the mystery unfolds.
And what characters they are. Murder has the great benefit of having a cast composed of numerous Academy Award winners and nominees as well as Tony Award winners and nominees. It is almost inarguable that this ensemble cast is truly what makes this movie great, for the story bounces so quickly from character to character that it takes great actors to anchor down these people to keep the audience from forgetting them. The time is split so evenly between all involved, making it an absolute pleasure to see the familiar faces of actors like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Leslie Odom Jr. just to name a handful. Not one of them feels overplayed, so when they each wander in and out of the plot, the audience’s interest is always held constantly and consistently. With a runtime of under two hours, and roughly 12 suspects to constantly cycle through, this film would certainly have been worse off with lesser-known names.

Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
The standout here is, of course, director and lead actor Kenneth Branagh, bringing the timeless character of Hercule Poirot to life with style, flair, and an abundance of humanity. When it comes to archetypes such as this – the Sherlock Holmes or Commander Spock figure – whose main attribute is their intelligence and capability to reason with the unreasonable, it is often far too easy to forget that there is supposed to be a humane character underneath all of that logic. Such is never the case with Poirot. In fact, one could argue that this movie is primarily about his journey through this mystery than it is about the mystery itself or any of the other characters involved. As Poirot stumbles through the complications this case presents him with, he is forced to battle with his personal scale of differentiation between right and wrong. Make no mistake; as this murder mystery unravels it is clearer and clearer that Poirot is the one on trial. What does the man of logic do when the line of morality becomes so increasingly blurred? It is a fascinating question that drives the movie with its subtle exploration and careful deconstruction. Despite the short runtime and fast pacing of the movie, this message gets across crystal clear thanks to its near-perfect execution. With material as famous and well-known as this Agatha Christie mystery, it is paramount to deliver the true message behind it to make it stand out from other, lesser films in this genre.
Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr. in Murder on the Orient Express. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
Now, it is worth noting that the movie does have a specific flaw that keeps it from being as satisfying as it could be—a flaw which pertains to the mystery itself. Without spoiling anything, the mystery and the facts surrounding the case are largely influenced by events that happen outside of the timeline of the film. Since the audience never sees these events play out, they rely solely on the characters to convey the relevant information to them and go from there. The problem is that this technique somewhat robs the audience of the true sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when it comes to actually solving the murder. Having been spoon-fed a backstory intended to tie all of the pieces together, the audience never gets to solve the puzzle for themselves and rather relies on Hercule to arrive at the conclusion. While there is nothing inherently wrong about this, it does create a distinct divide between whether the viewer participates by solving the mystery on their own or simply watches it play out in front of their eyes as someone else does all the work for them.
During a time when Hollywood is overflowing with text-to-screen adaptations, it is welcome to see one that takes an excellent source material and excels with it. The beauty of the cinematography, the masterful pacing, the attention given to the underlying message, and most of all, the stellar cast makes Murder on the Orient Express one of the first must-sees of the season. While the structure of the mystery itself may never lead to a pure “aha!” moment of realization, being guided through it all by Branagh’s Hercule is so delightful that is truly hard to complain.
Overall Grade: A
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