Film Reviews

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express Never Quite Figures Out What It Wants to Be

“A single-location murder mystery crowded with intense psychological portraits, shifting loyalties, pleasantly nasty surprises, a gallery of stars, panoramic vistas and keyhole surgery into the darkest corners of the human heart? Who wouldn’t take such a trip?”

When you put it that way, as Total Film Magazine did in its recent 4-page spread, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express sounds like a slam dunk. That’s what makes its failure so disappointing. This should have worked. Put a bunch of stars and respected English actors on a train, have them act out Agatha Christie’s infamous murder-on-a-train-and-everyone’s-a-suspect story, entrust direction and lead performance to Branagh, throw a decent chunk of change ($55m) at it to make sure it looks good and the end result should be an engrossing mystery movie, the likes of which we rarely see anymore. Instead, what we get is a surprisingly inert narrative, an ample amount of style, and precious little substance. Other than Branagh’s already-classic mustache, there’s nothing here you won’t forget about in a week.

It starts off so promising, though. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos treats us to a sumptuous version of 1934 Istanbul, his 65MM camera swooping in and out of the city to track the movements of a small servant child sent to the market to retrieve eggs for a particularly persnickety and obviously rather important guest. This guest, of course, turns out to be Hercule Poirot (Branagh, buried somewhere under that mustache), the world’s most famous detective, and he’s in town to solve a crime that has the city’s Jews, Christians and Muslims on the verge of war.

When he attends to the crime scene and lines up the three suspects along the Wailing Wall, he commands the crowd with astonishing ease, disarming them with his humor but capturing their attention with the authority and confidence in his voice and demeanor. It’s a genuine joy to watch a master at work, and the hilarious way he both solves the crime and anticipates the criminal’s attempted escape route serves as a perfect introduction to the character.

If only the rest of the film matched that joy. By the time Murder on the Orient Express gets to its second and final “I have solved the crime” sequence, all narrative momentum has been squandered. You initially greet the sight of Poirot at work with great anticipation. By the end, you’re happy to see him solve the crime on the train simply because him doing so will finally mean the end of this interminable movie. Moreover, by that point Zambarloukos’ once welcomed camera has become a genuine problem, staging lengthy oners for no narrative reason, veering down on crucial conversations from above in confusion fashion, peeking through glass windows to blurry the image, etc.

Murder’s cast members say they did this film for the chance to work with Judi Dench and Derek Jakobi; Branagh and Zambarloukos might have done it simply to challenge themselves to think up new ways to shoot scenes in a movie primarily taking place on a train.

Which is such a shame because when you have established talents like Dench and Jakobi as well as, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Willem Defoe, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Penelope Cruz paired with next big things like Daisy Ridley, Lamar Odom, Jr., Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, and Marwan Kenzari you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, stand back and let them play. Far too often, Orient Express simply gets in their way. Heck, it loses track of Boynton’s character entirely, to the point when Poirot finally interviews her about the murder you might ask, “Wait, who’s this now? Has she been on the train this entire time?”

Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green clearly made a conscious choice to focus less on the whodunit and more on the whydunit. We are thus meant to care less about the identity of the killer and more about the tragic backstory which all of the suspects seem to share and how exactly that could lead them to murder. Poirot even quotes Shakespeare (because it’s Branagh) at one point to get at the evil lurking in the hearts of men and women. That could, in theory, give the actors more material to work with, and at times they make an enjoyable meal out of it. Ridley, in particular, is every bit as captivating playing a strong-willed woman unphased by Poirot’s power and genius as she was playing Rey opposite cinematic icons like Han Solo and Leia in Force Awakens.

However, Murder is ultimately stuck serving two masters. It wants to be a murder mystery experimenting with 65MM panoramas to find new ways to photograph crime scenes, evidence gathering, and interrogations. It also wants to be a deceptively deep exploration into the psychological aftermath of tragedy and what Poirot’s exposure to such sadness does to his moral code and steadfast belief in justice. In the end, it doesn’t properly service either side of the story, leaving us with a film filled with lots of great parts (Branagh and Ridley’s performances being clear highlights) that don’t quite come together or add up to much.


The art departments killed themselves to make everything look gorgeous. The production team thought up ingenious ways to recreate the real Orient Express atop a mile and a half of train track laid down at Longcross Studios in Surrey, England. And the makeup and hair department deserves an Oscar for Branagh’s mustache alone.

A shame, then, it was all in service to such a forgettable movie.



Now it’s your turn. Let me know how wrong or right I am in the comments below.


  1. I generally like Kenneth Branagh, but I’m a little annoyed that this project was even green lit. Hell, the Albert FInney version in the 70s won academy awards and had a spectacular cast. I mean, it was very well done, and mostly did take place on the way to the train and on it, and really heightened the case without resorting to crazy camera tricks or anything like that.

    I actually watched it a few nights ago and still love it. Just don’t want to watch another version of it. It’s like Ben-Hur–no reason to remake that movie, but they did. You can’t top the original, especially if it’s won Oscars (back when it mattered).

    1. As you might expect, the “why does the world need another Orient Express movie” question has been posed to Branagh. His first answer is the most obvious one, which is it’s hard to turn down the chance to work with a cast headlined by the likes of Dench, Jakobi, Depp, Cruz, Pfeiffer and so many others. His second answer is he wanted to remind the world of the twisted and sinister heart of the original Christie novel, which he believes to be not quite the straightforward murder mystery we assume it is but instead a sobering examination of the collective pain of deep grief. His third answer is he craved the adventure of seeing what the supersized format of a 65MM camera, a format he previously used on Hamlet, could do when placed in such a claustrophobic setting. Heck, part of the reason he’s in Dunkirk is that he wanted to study firsthand exactly how Christopher Nolan used the 65MM lens on set.

      I am sympathetic to all those reasons. Branagh even follows those impulses to some rewarding ends. He finds some good uses for the big camera and takes some admirable stabs at getting to the darker heart of the story. I ultimately admire his attempt to genuinely try something a little different with the story. It just never all comes together, though. The Lumet version is technically the longer of the two, yet Branagh’s version feels so, so much longer, which tells you all you need to know.

      1. Yeah, that was my big worry. I just like the setup and such for the Lumet version, it was very self-contained and it helped the tension, running against the clock. There just seems to be so much else in this new one that made it looser, but also not as intense. Again, haven’t seen it–just the previews were enough to make me wonder how it’s going to keep the suspense going strong.

      2. “how it’s going to keep the suspense going strong”

        And you were exactly right to worry about that. The truly bizarre part of this movie is just how little suspense there actually is.

      3. ‘“how it’s going to keep the suspense going strong”

        And you were exactly right to worry about that. The truly bizarre part of this movie is just how little suspense there actually is.’

        Blame the source material and changing times for this.

        These days, we are used to John Grissom adaptions where there’s not just a mystery/crime to solve but the protagonists are struggling against an adversary trying to kill them before they can solve it.

        * SPOILERS *
        The book has nothing thrilling. It really doesn’t. The book has a lot more discussion between Poirot, Bohc and the train’s doctor (In the book, Poirot quickly establishes that he can trust Bohc and the train’s doctor.there are two colonels – the first colonel was the father of the murdered child in the backstory and kills himself. The second colonel is on the train and in the film, became the doctor who used to be a sniper.)

        The film has scenes that were never part of the book. They were the action bits: 1) Ratchet/Cassetti’s character pointing a gun at Poirot when trying to hire him. 2) MacQueen running away under the bridge to try to destroy his documents 3) the doctor/former sniper shooting Poirot in the arm.

  2. I saw this on the weekend as part of the Book-To-Film Adaptation Meetup group I am part of.

    I think everyone didn’t think highly of it. There were certain things we were hoping that wouldn’t happen and did such as additional action scenes that weren’t in the book.

    There were numerous scenes that really dragged me out of the immersion of film. I’ve enjoyed multi-day and multi-night train journeys and it’s cramped everywhere except the dining car. So when a plump guy paces along a corridor between Poirot and somebody else, it’s implausible. When many people leave a cabin, that’s implausible. I also thought it was silly that Poirot interviewed Mary Debenham outdoors in the snow and at a little table.

    The cinematography was distracting, especially the shots where the light refracts and we can see the same person in three pieces of glass.

    In the end, there are too many characters and not enough depth.

    1. “The cinematography was distracting, especially the shots where the light refracts and we can see the same person in three pieces of glass.”

      That move was especially annoying. Most of the cinematography was distracting, but I could at least kinda, sorta get what they were going for. The refracted light in the glass was a bit harder to figure, beyond a basic notion of being looked at through a magnifying glass.

      This is the kind of thing Branagh usually does, though. He makes big, lushly photographed old-fashioned films which are art directed to death and leave little time for depth and character. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s almost always nice to look at, and the actors usually do the best they can with it.

      As for the train, they did actually travel on the real Orient Express to get a feel for it and contacted the train’s company to obtain a copy of the manufacturing specs to recreate what it would have looked like in the 1930s. However, they also took artistic license with some of the designs, upped the opulence to make it look more like an upscale hotel, completely redesigned the station the Orient Express departs from at the beginning. Plus, as you seem to have picked up on, they did widen the cabins to accommodate the need for the various camera movements.

      1. “Plus, as you seem to have picked up on, they did widen the cabins to accommodate the need for the various camera movements.”

        Is modifying the environment even necessary in 2017? I’m so used to seeing “Oh, they must have used a GoPro” shots in “Breaking Bad” when the camera is stuck down small location such as inside a washing machine or bottom of a vat..

        Do I need a spoiler warning for anyone reading a discussion on a new film version of a 80 year old novel? Just in case…


        But 12 people shuffling out of two adjoining train cabins and having the room to move and to each stab the victim once without accidentally getting blood splatter on their clothing?!?!

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