“Murder on the Orient Express,” the star-studded film adaptation of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name, is a fast-paced mystery that captivates even those familiar with the plotline. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as the beloved protagonist, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the film is a mind-boggling murder mystery with underlying themes of justice. This rendition follows several other critically acclaimed adaptations of the famous novel, including a 1974 film adaptation by Sidney Lumet and several television adaptations.
The film opens by introducing a fascinating array of characters who join Poirot on the Orient Express as it snakes its way through Europe. These characters include quiet Spanish missionary Pilar Estravados, played by Penélope Cruz; charming American passenger Edward Ratchett; played by Johnny Depp; outspoken American widow Caroline Hubbard; played by Michelle Pfeiffer; and Russian princess, Natalia Dragomiroff, played by Judi Dench. Although it is initially challenging to keep track of the numerous characters on the train, they become more memorable as the film progresses, and the relationships between the passengers are gradually revealed.
After a lengthy exposition, the pace of the plot quickens drastically when Mr. Ratchett is found dead in his cabin. Due to an avalanche blocking the train, the remaining passengers are trapped on board as Poirot races to determine the killer’s identity. The potential suspects are endless, albeit predictable; among them are the devoted secretary, the charismatic widow and the trusty butler. The constant developments of new evidence and complicated relationships between various passengers set the stage for a mystery that keeps the audience guessing until the conclusion of the film.
Although some of the movie’s plotline of is relatively generic, following the typical framework of any murder mystery, the unexpected moments of levity interspersed throughout the film make it distinctive. The humor and sarcasm in the dialogue add a refreshing amount of modernity and liveliness to a story written over 80 years ago.
Another strength of the film is the action occurring off the train. The film was shot with 65 mm cameras, providing stunning wide shots and very lifelike imagery. It can be challenging to shoot these simple shots in a way that is engaging, but “Murder on the Orient Express” absolutely succeeds in this area, and the shots of the train rolling from a bazaar in Istanbul to the snow-capped mountains of Eastern Europe as action unfolds inside of it are stunning.
Arguably, the film’s greatest flaw is in its multiplicity of characters. Besides Detective Poirot, the characters do not receive enough screen time to be sufficiently developed. Furthermore, the film barely allows the audience to register the information given about the characters before the murder case is solved. Given the number of seasoned actors in the cast, like Cruz, Dench and Depp, it was especially frustrating that the overly fast-paced plot did not slow to let the actors bring their characters to life.
Worse yet, the resolution was anticlimactic after nearly two hours of exciting mystery that kept even the famed detective Poirot on his toes. While solving the mystery raises questions of what constitutes true justice in a balance between the letter and spirit of the law, the neat and speedy resolution of a messy murder case may feel unrealistic to some audience members.
Although the newest adaptation does not quite live up to the talents of its celebrity cast, it successfully lays out an unpredictable mystery inside the Orient Express and keeps viewers engaged for its duration. Director Branagh has expressed interest in adapting other Christie mysteries and, given the excitement and intrigue of this rendition, audience members can look forward to watching Detective Poirot solve more complex cases in the future.