All Aboard the Hype Train
So over a month ago Murder on the Orient Express released. I went to see it. I had always wanted to see it. The story is a little famous. Written by Agatha Christie if you didn’t know. Though it’s arguably her most famous story so I’d be surprised if you didn’t know. When I had expressed to my family that I wished to see it, most of them already said they had. Or knew the ending. I was a little surprised because some of them don’t even read mystery novels.
Now, my interest wasn’t based on the star power of the movie (though it does have the always entertaining Kenneth Branagh and a host of other really fantastic actors). It wasn’t even the buzz surrounding the picture. Largely because I was keeping myself divorced from the film having decided to watch it when I heard the title. I wanted to know as little about it as possible. That it was the seminal work of Agatha Christie was enough for me.
And I’m glad that I had.
If you’re like me and know nothing about Murder on the Orient Express, and you have an interest in watching it, then I’d suggest you stop reading now and go take a look. What I can tell you is that the performances are top notch and the filming of it is expertly crafted. As a cinematic piece, it is wholly worth the price of an evening ticket. So close this window now and go check it out! Scoot!
For the rest of us, either those not interest, those that have seen it or both, then I have many thoughts on the film. I suppose the first place to begin is the obvious question: did I like it?
Unfortunately, that question is possibly the hardest. So let’s talk about something else first.
I legitimately thought the acting was outstanding. There isn’t really a poor performance amongst the lot, though if I had to pick the weakest actor from the ensemble then it would go to Tom Bateman as the son of the Orient Express owner. He basically serves as Hercule Poirot’s (Kenneth Branagh) bumbling sidekick with little characterisation beyond degenerate womaniser and zero investment in the turmoil that overtakes his train. Outside of being a busy set of hands at the legendary detective’s side, he just doesn’t do anything interesting with his character or time on screen. Which is a stark contradiction to the rest of the cast who work overdrive in their brief moments before the audience to bring the colourful cast alive.
But Murder on the Orient Express is largely a Branagh affair. Bringing Hercule Poirot alive is a tall task especially since he’s been so defined by David Suchet’s portrayal. You can’t truly mimic other performer’s takes but Branagh never truly revitalises the detective or redefines him. I’m reminded of Heath Ledger’s Joker in Nolan’s movies. That was a transformational performance that changed the public’s perception of the comic book character for years to come. Branagh… isn’t doing the same. He does a fine job but it mostly left me wanting David Suchet to return.
Though I do have to give credit to Branagh for that fantastic moustache.
Of the standout performances, I’d have to give it to Johnny Depp to be honest. Depp has been pretty lacklustre in his years since doing Pirates of the Caribbean and it felt like he was pretty much going to ride out his career coasting on that character. However, though brief, he certainly adds punch and life to Samuel Ratchett. Otherwise, I really liked Olivia Colman as Hildegarde Schmidt – the assistant to regal Judi Dench’s Princess Dragomiroff.
Part of the issue, however, is that there’s such a large cast and so little time to spend with them. And each character has seemingly a lot to say towards the plot that, by the end, it feels like you’re just blasting through most of their connections and issues to come screeching to the end. Having not read the novel, I can see where much time would be spent weaving their various backgrounds and interactions together. In a film that can only cover an agonising portion, however, their time is too brief and the story focuses more on the plot. It feels like the movie would benefit from having a smaller cast just so you could focus on those characters more but one of the problems with Murder on the Orient Express is its devotion to sticking with its source material.
I’m not film buff, however I could really appreciate the technical work done. Trying to keep action high on the cramped quarters of a train can’t be easy, and there were some very clever uses of perspective and angle to both add variety and communicate emotion. I think the moment when I really noticed this technical work was with the discovery of Ratchett’s body. The camera follows Poirot from a top down perspective, curiously removing the audience from the initial facial reaction of the discovers of the grisly scene while also cutting out the grisly scene itself! You only see Branagh’s head as the initial panic over the dead body is addressed and the doctor is brought in to do a very brief examination of the body. It was an intriguing and unexpected use of camera work that brought my attention to an otherwise ignored aspect of film making. Whether that is a good thing or not, I suppose, is more up for debate.
But all this is perhaps extraneous. Given its authenticity, the real question about Murder on the Orient Express’s quality isn’t on its production or execution. Both of those are outstanding. Instead, the movie lives and dies by its story itself. And that’s where I feel things get a lot murkier.
As I mentioned earlier, my whole impetus for watching the movie was its pedigree. Agatha Christie is really the founder of the murder mystery genre. Murder on the Orient Express is one of her famous, if not most famous, stories. And I just simply can’t see why.
It does represent the distillation of her style, however. This is the point in my movie review wherein I recommend a wholly different movie. Have you heard of Murder by Death? Yes? Good. Go watch it. No? Too bad. Go watch it.
Murder by Death is a comedy that lampoons the mystery genre. It specifically targets some very famous but very old authors and works. I really enjoyed the movie on its comedy merits alone. Seeing Murder on the Orient Express has made me appreciate Murder by Death far, far more. Now I know exactly what it’s criticising. And I absolutely agree with the writers and Capone. What they did was bullshit.
But let’s be more concrete. Agatha Christie wrote her mysteries specifically in a manner meant for the reader to be impressed by the detective. The techniques used were not opaque. The detective often had additional information never presented to the reader. Say, like in the Murder on the Orient Express, the knowledge of an earlier incident involving the kidnapping and death of a little girl. Detectives will also often go into a scene and make note of objects or evidence never elucidated to the readership. That way, when the big reveal occurs, the audience is in awe of the deductive prowess and fantastic reasoning of the principle character.
It’s certainly a style that’s run its course. And, for me, it’s definitely a style that I don’t lament fading. There’s a certain dishonesty to it. Like the author doesn’t actually feel confident the detective will come across as observant or intellectual if they don’t purposefully keep their audience in the dark. It’s the idea that if, when presented with the same information, the audience will groan and decry “it’s obviously the butler!” But unlike the audience, the detective is enslaved to literary pacing and story development.
Which is a fair concern. Literary detectives don’t work under the same restraints as real life detectives. And genre savvy readership is plenty apt to be able to parse their favourite writer’s style and method to figure out the perpetrator before the climax of the story. And the last thing you want is your audience groaning over the obvious struggle of your detective to piece together obvious clues and finger the culprit.
Murder on the Orient Express is clearly written to subvert it. It’s hard to not see it less as a story about the characters but more a game between the author and readership. There’s far too many fake-outs and misdirections than I personally like. The story is secondary to the situation as you fight with Agatha Christie, trying to beat her at her own game. And, of course, she’s leaning into the old bag of tricks because her readership would know them by now.
In the end, I don’t like the story because it’s reliant on a history of Agatha Christie’s style and characters in order to achieve it’s amusement. If you’re not really familiar with her, like I am, it’s very easy for the piece to piece moments to make absolutely no sense. And, frankly, they don’t. The characters’ motivations and methods are insanely over-the-top. It’s a mess of over complicated nonsense with no rhyme or reason to occur. At best I can imagine that the whole thing was set up because the culprit was aware that Poirot was onboard and was worried about being discovered. Unfortunately for that hypothesis, Poirot only made it on the train at the very last minute so either the culprit is capable of making insanely detailed plans involving the movements of multiple actors or that this was originally planned in order to baffle… no one?
I mean, seriously, the culprit had the ability to murder the victim in some discreet alleyway in Istanbul then ride a luxury train to Europe where they would never be caught. The whole mystery is intentionally made convoluted solely so Poirot can dazzle and amaze when he reveals who was ultimately behind it. But it’s such a blatant example of showmanship that it lays bare the ugly reality that you’re not watching anything real. This whole exercise is just a mindless excuse to amuse and entertain with nothing else to stimulate your interest.
Sure, in a reductive way this could describe any entertainment but that’s where character arcs and themes step in to give you greater pause to consider the work and its larger relevance. There is no relevance to Murder on the Orient Express save for its fame. In a sense, it’s the Kim Kardashian of murder mysteries. Its meant to be ogled for an hour and a bit but ultimately discarded and forgotten.
Contrast that with Murder by Death which examines the actual underpinnings of a genre and the relationship between author and audience and it’s hard not to think one has more value than the other despite being a shameless spoof.
So did I enjoy Murder on the Orient Express? I enjoyed its production. I enjoyed the contextualization of other work that stemmed from it. But of the mystery itself I can’t honestly say that I did. I’m glad I saw it for its role in history but, more than anything, it makes me question why it played a role in the first place.