Your response to Murder on the Orient Express can be determined by your reaction to one element. By now you will have seen the moustache sported by Kenneth Branagh's detective. It is an absurd, lavish creation, resplendent and impractical, not like any moustache to grace the silver screen before. If this causes an amused smile to emerge on your face then this Christie adaptation is for you. If you roll your eyes at the ridiculousness of it, then I would suggest staying away from this film.
The film picks up with Hercule Poirot at the end of a case in
Murder on the Orient Express may well be Agatha Christie's most famous story and this certainly is not the first adaptation of this film, with a previous version even going on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 1975 ceremony. For this new version Branagh directs as well as stars, and has produced a curious piece, neither comfortably a relic of a previous era nor a thriller fitting for a modern audience. The film has embraced the decadence of the story, with the set and costume designers working overtime to give the film a stylish gleam. This is all aided by Haris Zambarloukos's cinematography, with the camera moving in and around the film's singular setting, as well as giving us sweeping shots of the surroundings it hurtles through. The reveal of the murder victim is particularly effective here, with the audience looking down on the corpse. And yet no matter how gorgeous the film looks, it cannot hide the musty quality of proceedings. The noticeable clunking of the gears that marks the adaptation of such a familiar story from such an familiar author. We all know how Christie's works go and so, as with the moustache, your degree of tolerance for the devices the film adopts will feed into your enjoyment of it.
The cast is packed to the brim with talent, as if the film is trying to get as many famous faces on the poster as possible. We have the-stars-of-Disney-franchises (Star Wars' Daisy Ridley, Frozen's Josh Gad, POTC's Johnny Depp), the icons of 80s movies (Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer), and the refined talent of British cinema (Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman). Yet few have much to do beyond play Cluedo cartoons in the flesh, alternating between various stages of looking suspicious. Branagh gifts himself the most rounded part of the piece, with his Poirot as a surprisingly sympathetic, nuanced interpretation. The only other actor to make a noticeable impression is Tom Bateman, who is a hoot as the drunken friend of Poirot, who happens to also run the Orient Express (awfully convenient). It highlights that this might have all worked better if the comedic side had been more readily embraced.
Once you strip away the swooshing camera and the talent-packed cast Murder on the Orient Express feels remarkably close to an ITV Boxing Day special. The inner workings are the same, the familiarity either the film's greatest strength or most noticeable weakness. You'll either be amused by the lavishness or frustrated by the ridiculousness.