Review – Murder on the Orient Express

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Mystery movies are an uncommon occurrence these days. More and more often we get movies action/mystery stories where there is a mystery to be solved but it’s solved through guns and punching rather than deductive reasoning. Even the most recent Sherlock Holmes franchise with Robert Downey Jr. is really an action series with just enough mystery begrudgingly added in to justify calling the main character Sherlock Holmes. So when we get a movie like Murder on the Orient Express that is a genuine true murder mystery story, it’s almost a shock to the system. Add to the fact that the movie takes place in the time period when the original book was written, and borrows a tactic from classic Hollywood epics of casting every movie star they can get their hands on, and you can’t help but have the thought “They just don’t make movies like this anymore.” cross your mind.

Murder on the Orient Express is a Hercule Poirot story. Poirot is one of the more famous characters to have been created by mystery author Agatha Christie and may be the second most famous detective character in history after the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes. Poirot is played, in this movie, by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the movie. Branagh, who has become famous for both directing and starring in various adaptations of the works of Shakespeare, brings an air of importance to the role of Poirot, as if this is another titan of classic literature that he is bringing to life. Branagh is clearly fond of the character as he treats Poirot with a deal of respect and reverence. Though he is able to bring his own interpretation to the character. Branagh’s version of Poirot sees his brilliant detective skills as a curse as much as they are a gift. Rather than one who delights at being the smartest person in the room as we often see with genus detective characters, Branagh plays Poirot as a man who is struggling to some extend with his obsessive-compulsiveness, a man who is incapable of overlooking imperfection, trapped in an imperfect world.

The movie is stuffed to the brim with other stars as well, including but not limited to, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. It would take far too much time to list the attributes that each actor brings to their respective character, but it’s safe to say that they all do a remarkable job bringing the cast of characters to life. Because the plot of the story is driven through dialogue far more than action, each character is given a moment or two to shine as they are interrogated by Poirot.

The setup for the mystery is a group of strangers who are all on the same three day train journey when the train is halted due to an avalanche on the tracks. The next morning it is discovered that one of the passengers, a Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is dead and because the train is stranded in the middle of the mountains, the murderer must be one of the other passengers on the train. With help on the way the director of the Orient Express turns toward Hercule Poirot for help, hoping that by the time people arrive to dig the train out from under the show, that a murderer can be produced along with the murder itself. Working against the clock, Poirot begins to uncover facts about the life of the deceased Ratchett, including his association with a high profile kidnapping and murder of a young child a few years earlier.

Obviously, because this is a mystery it wouldn’t be a good idea to provide much more detail of the plot than that, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that many of the passengers have secrets themselves ones that they would cast a shadow of suspicion from one passenger to the next and then back again. Poirot interviews each passenger in turn in an increasingly tense series of interrogations. It’s these scenes that the movie lives and dies on as the audience tries to play along with Poirot, trying to decipher what information is relevant, what information is extraneous, and what information is flat out lies.

Somewhat surprisingly, Murder on the Orient Express used 65mm film cameras in the production of the movie, an increasingly rare feature in motion pictures today, but one that pays off in the handful of exterior shots that the movie has. It’s almost a shame that so much of the movie takes place in the cramped confined quarters of the train cars, because the few times the characters venture outdoors are breathtaking. Shots of the mountain range may end up being the visual that says with you the longest despite it taking up a relatively small portion of the film’s runtime.

You can call Murder on the Orient Express a throwback movie if you like. It certainly feels like a movie that took it’s story and production cues from a previous era of filmmaking. But it stands today as a modern movie as well, one that can hold the attention of a modern audience through tense character moments and a well thought out story that lets the viewer play along with the mystery, but still manages to keep the detective one step ahead the entire time.

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