Murder on the Orient Express – should you watch it?

Director: Kenneth Branagh, Producers, Kenneth Branagh, Ridley Scott, Scott Free Productions. Cast: Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kenneth Branagh

It is unusual to see so many major stars in one place. The puzzle here is, why should that place be the Orient Express?

I know, I know, it’s arguably the most famous Agatha Christie novel and all that, but … why film it, yet again? Wasn’t once enough?

There must be so many marvellous new films out there that are as yet but a script lying in an agent’s drawer, and will almost certainly remain there, but Branagh and Scott Free Productions would still rather devote their powers to resurrecting a literary dinosaur from the 1930’s.

But, perhaps it proves worth the exhumation?

Do the big hitters: Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp, make this dated classic worth turning out on a rainy night for?

Not in my view.

Is this because Judi Dench has suddenly forgotten how to act? Of course not. It’s because the original novel’s characterisation is too thin to give her anything to get her teeth into. So she's stuck playing an inexplicable Russian countess: a part that even in her hands has all the depth of a coy pond.

As whodunnit’s go, I suppose it’s solid. In its day it was innovative. But, even if you weren’t already aware of the ‘big twist’, it’s really no more engrossing now than your average Friday night episode of Midsummer Murders.

It has the correct elements, such as a body fairly early on. (And you know things are bad when the reviewer is having to say, ‘Well, at least the body shows up…’)

There’s oddness in the film's pacing. It takes a long time to get going (i.e. to the murder) due to lots of shenanigans with eggs, exotic temples, and running about looking hot and bothered. Then, only about twenty minutes on from the discovery of the corpse, or so it feels to the bemused viewer, Branagh (I mean Poirot, but you can never forget it’s Branagh) is announcing the big reveal.

There is also a problem with tone. From the trailer, images and, mainly, the moustaches, I was expecting a more comic prevailing feel. And they have tried to bring out humour where they can, but sadly ‘tried’ is the most one can say.

Are we to hope for a Jack Sparrow-type laugh or two from Depp? You will be disappointed. Since that infamous ‘apology to Australia’ episode, Depp is only dialling it in. He’s always only really played Johnny Depp, with or without eye-makeup, and now he’s not even good Johnny Depp.

His lethargic outing here perfectly endorses the rumour that the producers struggled to get all the mega-stars in front of the cameras at the same time - with a stand-off of ‘least famous person out of the trailer first’ bedevilling shooting. As a result we have cameos of each star individually rather than a whole-cast film. Though, this may be in large part the fault of the source material.

Most fatal of all, with regard to tone, the story at the very heart of this film, is profoundly sad. It feels too sad to have moustaches, wigs and oh so quaint French detectives with OCD all over it. It feels too sad for such an overly plush production.

And, Branagh? I found the fact that his extravagant grey moustache (nicknamed ‘badger’ by the rest of the cast, presumably because it's the size of one) doesn’t quite match his natural hair more intriguing than the rest of his performance put together. For an actor of his standing that means something’s gone badly wrong.

In the end you’re left asking, ‘Can’t we make new stories into films?' And, if we must remake old ones endlessly, why not those about something more interesting than the tired-out murder/detective/body-on-page-seven formula?

Verdict:

The stars, the extravagant set, and Kenneth Branagh’s moustache all do their damnedest to inject some life into this ancient mummy of a story. Their antics might keep you awake, but not entertained.

Should you? No. Unless you love whodunits with an unhealthy passion. Or Kenneth Branagh. Or, most importantly of all, moustaches.


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