The classic murder mystery is a throwback to an earlier era of storytelling: Get a dozen or so people in a claustrophobic setting, have someone die under troubling circumstances, and narrow down the list of suspects until it’s discovered not only who is the murderer but why. Mystery stories were adapted quite frequently during Hollywood’s Golden and Silver ages—so much so there were actual expressions used to describe their predictability and over-the-top theatricality—like, “The butler did it.” (I wonder how many readers are old enough to know and/or understand that expression.)
I’m not sure what happened to the murder mystery at the movies. Maybe it’s because the whole “whodunit” genre began to occupy so much real estate on television—or, like all genres, it became a little tired. There are still mysteries making their way into cinemas, but they evolved into a more psychosis-filled, sexy space. Films like “Gone Girl,” “Basic Instinct” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” featured the classic “find the killer” scenario, but there was more attention paid to the characters. There was a time when the murder and identity of the killer was the whole point of the story. Nowadays, the killing seems more like an excuse for filmmakers to examine the fractured mind of the mentally askewed.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is a throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking. It attempts to be an opulent piece of grand filmmaking, lavishly showcasing exotic locations and beautiful costume design. There’s a lot that star and director Kenneth Branagh gets right. He plays Agatha Christie’s most famous creation, Hercule Poirot—the world’s greatest detective. He’s capable of seeing slight imperfections around him, as well as being an excellent judge of character. We meet Poirot as he’s solving a case in Jerusalem that involves stolen religious relics. It takes only a single clue for him to unravel the case and capture the thief. His mind is as sharp and troubled as his off-putting facial hair.
We’re meeting Poirot as he nears the end of his esteemed career. His fame and popularity would be powerful tools in the hands of someone who cared about such things. He’s more interested in being left alone and reading Charles Dickens. He ends up on the infamous Orient Express while making his way home. Though he takes no interest in the passengers, they take an interest in him. Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is a low-rent-thug-turned-art-dealer, who believes he’s being hunted down after selling forgeries. He approaches Poirot for help but is refused. For Poirot, the lines of right and wrong are clearly drawn. Ratchett’s paranoia turns out to be warranted. The next morning his dead body is discovered having been drugged then brutally stabbed to death.
Poirot is forced into trying to track down the murderer, who is still on the train. It leads him to work his way through the other passengers and use his superior intellect to solve the case. There’s the older, flirtatious American woman (Michelle Pfeiffer); an Austrian hate-filled professor (Willem Dafoe); a beautiful young countess (Daisy Ridley); and a young doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.). It’s a train filled with suspects and all of them seem to be hiding something. Can Poirot solve the case and bring the killer to justice?
There are admirable aspects about the production: The cast is a fabulous collection of scenery-chewing talent who bring this weird little story to life. It’s kind of nice to wade back into the familiar waters of the old-school murder mystery. However, it’s also a reminder of how solemn, slow and uncinematic such affairs can be. The Agatha Christie slow-burn potboilers feel so much better suited for television, like the Agatha Christie mysteries that have been running on PBS for what feels like forever. There’s nothing about “Murder on the Orient Express” that makes me be believe it needed to be adapted for the big screen. Like a lot of Kenneth Branagh’s directorial efforts, the film is a healthy blend of overly-dramatic, bordering on ridiculous, with occasional moments of entertainment.