I must say it feels like it’s been quite a while since the last movie with an all-star cast. It wasn’t always like this of course. For pretty much most of Hollywood’s existence the concept of an all-star cast was guaranteed to put bums in seats. Hell, it could even sometimes win Oscars, as in the case of 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days, or even the 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (MOTOE).
But as we moved into the early 21st century that started to change. More and more people were drawn to characters rather than actors. As such, studios could now cast unknowns in the role, confident in the fact that people would still pay good money to see these movies.
Because of this director and star Kenneth Branagh seems to be taking quite the risk. Will people still flock to see what is arguably an old-fashioned approach to cinema?
The year is 1936 and renowed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) finds himself in Istanbul where he plans to board the famed Orient Express for his journey back to Europe. Aboard the train he meets a variety of faces, including that of creepy gangster, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp).
Ratchett demands protection from Poirot, seemingly in fear for his life. But Poirot declines, stating that he does not protect criminals, only detects them. But it seems that Ratchett’s fears were well-founded as he is murdered in his bed while he sleeps.
Now trapped on a train with 11 suspects, Poirot must use every ounce of his detective reasoning to try and uncover the murderer.
Based on the 1934 Agatha Christie book, it’s fair to say that most people have already seen some version of MOTOE. But even if you’ve seen every single previous iteration, there is no chance that you’ve seen one on this scale. The sweeping shots of the cold European landscape are almost Lord of the Rings-esque in nature, while the portrayal of early 20th century Istanbul is exquisite in its beauty. It’s only a shame that such images are occasionally let down by the ropey CGI.
But as the camera heads inside the rickety train carriage, grand landscapes are instead exchanged for opulent indulgence. There’s a reason why the Orient Express is historically considered the height of luxury. As such production designer Jim Clay and set decorator Rebecca Alleway have, in the words of John Hammond, “Spared no expense.”
Branagh is obviously loving every minute, getting to show the famous detective at his most playful and his most tormented. Having already breathed new life into the story of Cinderella a few years ago, he does so again by guiding his directorial hand into making this pre-WWII era as glamorous and sexy as possible. (Case in point: this might be the first on-screen Poirot that’s thin!)
But the highlight is undoubtedly seeing each of the cast play off each other. And what a cast, as we get to see the man-hungry widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); the racist (possibly Nazi) Professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe); the young British professionals of Governess Debenham and Dr. Arbuthnot (Daisy Ridley & Leslie Odom Jr.); as well as many, many more.
But as accomplished as the cast is, there’s no denying that there are too many of them. While it’s expected that a murder mystery should have plenty of suspects as red herrings, as it currently is MOTOE is far too overstuffed. A solid pruning of the many characters would have at least allowed extended character development for the ones who remained.
Die-hard fans of the Agatha Christie classic might not find anything new in the 2017 adaptation. But for those of a more casual acquaintance with the popular story, this version of Murder on the Orient Express is a solid and enjoyable murder mystery.