Review: Murder on the Orient express

Murder on the Orient Express – Watched 10th November 2017 at Vue Omni.
Both directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, this whole film felt somewhat self indulgent. It didn’t seem to know quite what it wanted to be- a murder mystery or a look into the psyche of a great detective, unfortunately it didn’t quite manage either. Having not seen any previous version of Murder on the Orient Express and not having read the book either, it’s hard to say how close the film sticks to the original story. It felt that Kenneth Branagh had decided to make the film under the assumption that every viewer had already seen it, making very little effort to build up the twist ending in any way. Instead focusing more on the characters and in particular the detective.
The only version of Poirot I know well is that portrayed by David Suchet and I found myself comparing Kenneth Branagh to his portrayal all the way through the film, I couldn’t decide if that was testament to how iconic the character is, or whether Brannagh’s portrayal didn’t stand out enough on its own to make me forget the previous version. David Suchet seems to portray the trim little detective as the character the public loved but Agatha Christie described as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep. While Kenneth Branagh adds an emotional depth to the character that I couldn’t have imagined Suchet’s Poirot having, not being the type of gentlemen to let himself show emotion so carelessly. On the other hand Kenneth Brannagh does bring a spotlight to the detective’s likely struggle with OCD and a generally kind but occasionally cutting humour that Suchet’s more fussy Poirot doesn’t normally manage.
The finding of a note suggesting the victims link to the abduction and murder of a little girl ten years prior was the start of too many coincidences. After the second person to pop up with a direct link to that little girl on a train on the other side of the world from where she was taken, it became more about trying to work out if anyone wasn’t involved. The film didn’t seem to be trying to hide this, what presumably should have been the biggest plot twist. Rather it seemed to be assuming that everyone already knew the twist and so instead was trying to look at the psychology of the great detective instead. He insists long after the whole audience will have realised the truth that “only one can have committed the act.” Poirot believes that being a killer is such an aberration that in a group of twelve only one person could possibly have the psyche of a murderer. While in general he might be right, it seems an odd belief from someone that deals with murder on seemingly a weekly basis. This would have been an interesting direction to take the film if they’d actually pursued it. Instead it seemed that the film tried to walk an unsatisfying line between Poirot’s view of the world and the mystery itself. Not quite managing either.
Jim Clay’s version of the Orient Express is every bit as lavish as you might hope, all beautiful art deco styling in opulent materials. According to imdb the set is a near perfect reproduction of the Simplon Orient Express, which was one of the three Orient Express trains and the train specified by Agatha Christie in the book. While the costume by Alexandra Byrne is understated, beautiful and surprisingly forgettable. For a film that revolves around a journey almost synonymous with luxury, the costumes don’t make nearly as much of the possibilities or as much impact as I would have hoped. Particularly since the performances are also hammed up somewhat, but perhaps the costume is serving to ground the characters back into a semblance of reality, since nothing else seems to be trying to. It seems a shame however that a designer who I’ve seen have such fun designing for Elizabeth the Golden Age and Guardians of the Galaxy amongst others, would opt out of taking something so ripe for extravagance as this all the way she could. Instead though there are some lovely subtle touches in the tailoring such as diamond points cut in the pattern on the waist of a coat with tails, and some truly beautiful tailored tweeds. Even so, I was a little disappointed. There does seem to be a lot of effort made to make very period accurate clothes and a lot of the costume is sourced from vintage shops and wardrobes which could be part of why I found the costume less exciting than I had hoped, the extravagance and precise characterisation of film costume becomes normal to see on screen but the reality is that the type of wardrobe those on the train would really have worn might have been closer to those sourced clothes than anything the designer could have dreamed up even with precise research. Even so, although I appreciate those efforts to bring a touch of reality to the story, I’m not sure this particular story was the place to attempt that sort of realism.
I could certainly imagine watching Murder on the Orient Express on the couch after Christmas dinner as a tv special and I would definitely enjoy it, but I’m not sure I needed to see it on the big screen to get the full effect of some rather over done and underwhelming CGI backgrounds to the train’s journey. The kind of overdone acting with an underdone story is exactly what I would expect from Christmas TV, but I generally expect more from Kenneth Branagh.