By Amber Tortorelli
Not all stories translate well from page to feature film, and Murder on the Orient Express may be one of them.
Despite a star-studded supporting cast and an excellent performance by Kenneth Branagh (who you may know as Gilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter series) of eccentric detective Hercule Poirot, the hook just wasn’t there. Instead of being pulled along with the case, it was easy to become increasingly impatient for the conclusion.
The problem is, with 13 suspects and a runtime of just under two hours, it isn’t possible to pay adequate attention to all of them, let alone to the clues left at the crime scene. Add to the time crunch, a crucial backstory that is only slowly revealed to the viewer over the course of the movie becomes frustrating to sit through.
Unlike most mysteries, it seems that this isn’t one that the audience is meant to piece together. The real focus of the movie is not the solving of the murder, but rather Poirot’s process in getting to the bottom of it.
It isn’t so much a murder-mystery as it is a film about an aging, tired detective who can’t seem to sever himself from his work. Like the tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, the focus of Agatha Christie’s detective stories are on its sleuth. Similar to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot is larger than life.
His keen intellect and hyperawareness of detail allows him to solve mysteries that no one else would be able to.
Also like Holmes, in many stories Poirot has a sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings, like Watson, gives the audience the ability to view the crime through the eyes of a regular person.
Since Hastings often narrates in Poirot’s stories, the readers can have a better sense of the investigation. They are able to become familiar with any clues as well as the personalities of the suspects.
Unfortunately, Hastings does not appear in Murder on the Orient Express, depriving the audience of a lens through which to view the crime. Instead, we are left to huff and puff along behind Poirot, who is always several yards ahead.
The most enjoyable part of the movie was watching Branagh play the persnickety detective, even when you got frustrated with him for understanding something you had no way of grasping. Unfortunately, the performances of the other cast members felt lackluster in comparison.
Knowing that Branagh directed in addition to starring in Murder on the Orient Express might explain this— there’s a sense of confidence in and commitment to his performance that others are missing. They feel more like talking props for Branagh to interact with than characters in their own right.
Between the relatively little screen time each suspect got and the lack of depth they were all written with, there isn’t a reason these roles were filled by film industry powerhouses like Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer other than to draw audiences in by their names alone. Their talents certainly weren’t utilized correctly.
All in all, Murder on the Orient Express was a fun movie, but it wasn’t satisfying. Poirot stories seem to function better either in print or shown as a mini-series, where the audience can really get to know the detective.
With Poirot tales, the crimes and criminals take a back seat. It’s his methods and motivations that are the real plot, and the audience needs sufficient time and material in order to appreciate them.
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