The television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot ran from 1989 to 2013 and contained 70 episodes. If you were to take any one of those episodes, give it a much higher production budget and fill it with A-list actors, you’d have Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. Rather than try to upend Agatha Christie’s novel or the mystery genre in general, Branagh plays by the rules, wrapping the tale in a handsomely crafted production that has a surprising blend of humor and fun despite the weight of finding a murderer. It’s only at the end when Branagh’s tight direction can’t handle piecing together the crime and the themes become disappointing despite an attempt to give Poirot a character arc.
Famous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) has hitched a ride on the luxurious Orient Express thanks to his devious friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). During the trip, one of the passengers is murdered and the train becomes snowbound. While workers try to dig out the engine, Poirot reluctantly decides to solve the crime. He interviews the passengers who would have had access to the scene of the crime and discovers that there’s far more happening than a simple murder.
Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934, but it’s now been around for so long that the solution to the crime has receded from the public consciousness, so I won’t spoil that here or even go into more detail than the trailers, which won’t even reveal the passenger who dies. However, even if you’ve read the book, you’ll find Branagh’s take to be a highly enjoyable experience that takes advantage of the director’s penchant for rich, warm, classical direction that wraps you up like a warm blanket.
Branagh hasn’t made a movie to challenge his audience as much as he’s made it to comfort them. Even though it’s a murder mystery yarn, everything in the production is functioning at a level of highest craftsmanship. The cast, especially Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe, who play passengers/suspects, are superb, Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography rises to the challenge of a movie mostly shot in one location to avoid ever feeling stagey, Patrick Doyle provides a great score, and the whole production has the same kind of gorgeous, rich look of Branagh’s past films Cinderella and Hamlet.
Where Murder on the Orient Express falls apart is at the climax of the film. Despite the exquisite staging and even the melodrama that somehow works (Poirot says with a straight face, “You will have to answer to two people: Your god, and Hercule Poirot.”), there are some elements where a book is able to get away with things a movie can’t. What the reader will allow becomes far more difficult to visualize on screen, and in his grand revelation, Poirot reveals facts that the audience would have had no way of knowing, thus making it impossible to have our suspicions confirmed or denied.
The ending becomes even more difficult based on Poirot’s reaction to the crime. Again, not to give anything away, but it creates a moral conundrum the movie isn’t fit to solve. Rather than grappling with the weight of the crime, the movie simply shrugs it off, has Poirot slightly adjust his moral code, and move on to the next case. It’s a disappointing, sloppy end for a film that had, for the most part, felt meticulously crafted.
But before you reach that ending, it’s still an enjoyable feature, and even the conclusion isn’t enough to derail the old-fashioned storytelling that the film provides. If Murder on the Orient Express was the start of a new Poirot franchise starring Kenneth Branagh and every new entry was handsomely produced and wonderfully cast, I’d happily turn up to see that series. I just hope they come to better conclusions.