Kenneth Branugh’s stellar performance can’t keep “Murder on the Orient Express” on-track

Kenneth Branagh's "Murder on the Orient Express" is best saved for cable. (Image courtesy of Vimeo)

Colin Vanden Berg

Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor

November 2017 is packed with high-profile film releases. Every week this month includes at least one film that comes with a lot of fanfare, from comedy sequels to superhero films to well-advertised holiday fare. In the midst of months like this one, often the only way low and middle-budget dramas stand out is if they have name recognition, or else demonstrate major awards potential. Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” has the name recognition in spades. Unfortunately, Branugh’s incredible lead performance will likely be buried this awards season due to the film’s pedestrian script and waste of the most star-studded casts in recent memory.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is a film directed by Kenneth Branagh (“Thor,” “Cinderlla,” “Hamlet”), adapted from the acclaimed 1934 mystery novel by Agatha Christie. The book’s fame and influence both helps and hurts Branaugh’s adaptation. The script’s faithful approach to the old-school murder-mystery format is refreshing, since true sleuth-centered mysteries have fallen out of fashion on the big screen, and now exist almost exclusively on British television. The downside of that faithfulness is that many story points and conventions—particularly the resolution—which are present in Christie’s novel, feel dated and underwhelming in the face of the 80-year evolution of the murder mystery genre.

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”) is a world-renowned detective, who boards the Orient Express as a favor to an old friend, hoping for a well-deserved vacation time. When a wealthy businessman named Edward Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered overnight, Poirot finds himself the only one capable of solving the case. As more and more passengers become suspects, Poirot becomes more physically and emotionally exhausted by the unexpectedly personal nature of this case.

The premise is as classic as it gets, and Branagh’s spectacular turn as the brilliant, introverted yet dynamic Poirot is captivating. The film also looks incredible, with stunning shots of the train as is it traverses the countryside and mountainside.

The film’s cast is filled with big-name talent like Johnny Depp (“Edward Scisorhands,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”), Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars,” “The Force Awakens”), Penelope Cruz (“Vanilla Sky”), Josh Gadd (“Beauty and the Beast”), and Wilem Dafoe (“Platoon,” “Spider-Man”). Despite the impressive ensemble, however, the script relegates every actor besides Branagh, Gad, and Ridley are relegated to bit parts and glorified cameos. Branagh’s direction helps the characters stand out somewhat; however, there’s only so much he can do when the supporting characters are so stock, especially when he hurts his own cause with slow pacing and an inability the engage the audience in the film’s ostensibly high-takes situations.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is a film with tremendous potential. Unfortunately, only Branagh’s performance shines through in what is ultimately little more than an adequate cable watch.

Rating: 5.8/10