I came out of the cinema after watching Murder on the Orient Express impressed that Kenneth Branagh had managed to make a very faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s source novel. The problem for me was that I stopped reading the book after 50 pages because it was unspeakably dull. Christie’s cardboard cut-out characters and the conflation of prose with stage direction left me completely cold. Branagh’s film suffers from these same flaws, and I am torn as to whose door I should lay the blame.
The Murder on the Orient Express begins as it means to go on, with an all too brief and unexplored example of Hercule Poirot’s (Branagh) detective prowess. After this, he delivers a very on-the-nose speech about his strong belief in good and evil with nothing in-between. The rest of the film plays out as a 50+ year old man figuring out that sometimes, in the grown-up world, there is moral ambiguity – riveting!
The action then moves onto the eponymous train, where a raft of incredibly famous film stars all fight for scraps as Christie/Branagh dole out measly amounts of dialogue. Poor Judi Dench. Michelle Pfeiffer is very good but the rest are given so little attention from the camera that I feel my review should respond in kind.
One aspect of the casting I wish to highlight is the strange attitude to Leslie Odom Jr’s presence in the film as a black man. He has been cast as a character in the book who is not mentioned to be of any particular race – so far so good, and Branagh has a track record of diverse casting. However, his race is continually pointed out by other characters and is made an essential part of his backstory. While this treatment of a black character may be accurate to the period, my issue is that these details were clearly added to the script after Odom Jr was cast. What is the point in diverse casting if roles are rewritten and redefined to recognise the actor’s race?
The Murder on the Orient Express is a passable film to see if you don’t expect much from it. But if hard questions are asked the film quickly reveals itself as thinly plotted, over populated with characters, and a bit dull. Much like the book.