I grew up in a town where one of our popular tourist destinations was a murder mystery train. It’s a train ride where they serve dinner and actors perform a short play throughout the train cars. Then, at the end of the play, passengers vote for who they believe the culprit is. I rode the train several times throughout my life and even lived right next to it for a few years.
And every time I rode the murder mystery train, it was a pleasant but unmemorable experience. The actors always edged towards over-the-top histrionics, the mystery was often somewhat limp but entertaining enough, and the food was decent.
That mostly sums up Murder on the Orient Express.
To be fair, the one thing the murder mystery train couldn’t offer was a gorgeous perspective. Director Kenneth Branagh is a classically indulgent filmmaker and he brings that lavish eye and tone to the film in every shot. Branagh shot the movie on 65mm film stock and he takes advantage of every visual opportunity.
He finds inventive and entrancing angles to shoot from and that’s impressive considering that most of the story takes place in an enclosed space. For example, the shots involving the discovery and examination of the victim are done from a bird’s eye view. It’s an off-putting but engaging way to approach the scene.
And it’s not only the filmmaking that’s extravagant. Branagh has replicated the romantic allure of train travel with considerable success. Being on the Orient Express feels decadent in all the right ways. The production design is nigh flawless and it sells the world of the film.
There’s a Downside to All That
The problem that Murder on the Orient Express encounters is that the wrapping on the present is far more attractive than what’s inside. The cast — led by Branagh’s near camp portrayal of legendary detective Hercule Poirot — never get a chance to shine because everything else around them is grabbing your attention.
Granted, nobody is ever outright bad in the film. Almost the entire cast seems to be on the same page when it comes to the cartoonish nature of the material. Heck, this is basically a comic book movie for mystery nerds. So, while the ensemble is clearly swinging for the fences, it all works well enough to never feel annoying.
The only one who ends up feeling bizarrely sincere is Daisy Ridley. Her few scenes feel lifted out of a straight-faced version of the tale. That doesn’t mean she’s doing poorly but it makes her seem outside of the movie’s outlandish appeal.
What About the Murder?
Of course, the mystery element of the film is going to be a big selling point for a lot of viewers. Does it offer something worth seeing? It should be noted that Agatha Christie’s original story is over 80 years old and the revelation is well known, but I won’t spoil anything here for any viewers who might want to go in as blind as possible.
The central thrust of the story is fine. A lot of the revelations are presented through speedy dialogue with a very light emphasis on visual clues and surprises. Branagh’s Poirot rattles off so much of the story that it lacks the kind of punch you want from the big twists and turns in a detective case.
Still, the movie’s brisk pace keeps things moving before getting truly sluggish. And as overwrought as the mystery ends up being, it never gets to a point that you check out.
Is Murder on the Orient Express Good?
It’s a fine way to spend a night at the movies. If you do see it, see it in 70mm or the largest possible projection available. Murder on the Orient Express is an old-school visual treat. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, it’s a small location film that utilizes its confinement in stunning and engaging ways. You should see it on the big screen for that reason alone.
Otherwise, it’s a solid but slightly unremarkable bit of detective fiction. If there was more to recommend in the performances or the actual story, this could be something really special. As it is, it’s a decent distraction that probably won’t stick with you once you’ve left the theater.
But hey, it’s better than the murder mystery train.