Summary: Thirteen strangers, one murder, lots of mustaches!
Kenneth Brannagh, we missed you so! Based on an Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express is a well-crafted, slow unraveling murder mystery. Brannagh plays Hercule Poirot, one of the world’s greatest detectives, alongside an all-star cast including Judi Dench (Dame Judi Dench), Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, and Penelope Cruz. Also in play are relative newcomers (in comparison) and fan favorites Josh Gad, Manuel Garcia-Ruflo, Daisy Ridley, and- our personal favorite- Leslie Odom, Jr. (I will go to whatever lengths necessary to spread the goodness of his name!)
This is actually my first outing with this story and I’m glad I was unfamiliar- the ending was more surprising and bleaker than it would have been if I had known. Though this might seem like a movie that didn’t need a remake, Brannagh injects it with some new dynamics that make it interesting to watch- I would even watch it again just for the technical aspects. This is the kind of movie that is a little rare to come across and the most recent I can think of in the same vein is The Hateful Eight– very cast and dialogue heavy, little to no scenery change with the majority of things taking place in a small, confined area, with lots of little, subtle techniques to keep things interesting. Murder is very much a filmmaker’s piece.
That being said, if that sounds like your kind of thing, then absolutely see it. If you are more of a continuous action kind of person or need a higher pace, then I think you’re okay without seeing this.
The acting is, as expected with this caliber, spectacular, with Ridley, Gad, and Odom, Jr. getting a surprisingly large amount of screentime- next to Brannagh and possibly Depp, these three have the most lines. It was wonderful to see these three outside of the characters they are most famously known for and they are each very good. The rest of the cast feels underutilized with Cruz feeling the most left out- while their characters are interesting, they don’t get much dialogue except for interrogation scenes with Brannagh, whose Poirot is the center of attention. I think this is fine- Brannagh plays a delightful Poirot who laughs at A Tale of Two Cities and it’s visible when the wheels in his head are turning- but I could have used a campfire scene (you know what I am talking about) to get to know about the rest of the characters. (Watching interviews with the cast makes me want this even more- they genuinely look like they’re having a great time with each other.) The sneakiness could have also been turned up about 5%. And while all characters have something to hide, I wish everyone’s side plots felt more “at stake” as Gad’s or Odom, Jr’s. did.
Though this is where the story stalls a bit, the whole experience is entertaining with some incredible tricks, use of camera work, and lovely cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, who also teamed up with Brannagh on Thor and Cinderella. Brannagh, a master storyteller, has acknowledged that he just left the story alone and instead devoted his time to the “how” the story is told instead of the “whodunit,” a smart move on his part. Shot on 65mm film, there is some really elaborate camera work including a four-minute tracking shot through a crowded station and onto a train (with windows!) that highlights or points out each passenger on the train. I’m a huge fan of long takes, which Brannagh is an expert at (please please pleaseeee see Much Ado About Nothing if you haven’t). There’s also a great shot taken overhead, showing people scrambling to the cabin where the murder took place, as well as admirable tracking shots from car to car. The confined space of the trains makes it all the more interesting and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the framing and rehearsal it must have taken.
It’s a beautiful movie to watch, made better with its sets and costumes, all styled in the 1930s. There are several shots of the train crew dressing up the dining room with crystal and silverware, measuring how far the spoons are from the edge of the table and laying down tablecloths. It provides the backdrop with authenticity and intimacy. The train cars and cabins are especially impressive, as they are used for the majority of the movie and look just as good close up as they do far away. And okay, nerd moment: supposedly the train cars were built similar to a TV set, with removable pieces, and the cars were then surrounded by screens and put on hydraulics, all to simulate movement for the cast. That’s cool!
Murder is just filled with a bunch of these little innovations and it pays off. It’s great to have Brannagh back at work again, because he is one of those directors that nerds himself out and lets the actors do their thing. I personally wouldn’t mind a Poirot series with Brannagh at the helm, as a miniseries or whatever, just because there are a lot of different elements used that come together and work well. Actually, a miniseries might be better than a movie series. Wait, I can actually see this as a real thing. Netflix, can you make this happen?