My expectations for Murder on the Orient Express weren’t the highest. I expected it to look good and hit most of the right beats, like any good popcorn movie. I didn’t expect Murder on the Orient Express to be so much more than a seasonal tent pole movie, but it was.
I have always loved murder mysteries. I still do! As a child, I read all the Encyclopedia Brown books. Then I moved on to Nancy Drew, and tore through those mysteries as fast as I could. I was as enthralled with the cover art as I was the stories. (And I was devastated when I found out that Carolyn Keene was only a pen name that was shared by several writers. Oh, the humanity!)
As a teenager, I discovered Agatha Christie. My mother purchased a subscription, so that every month, a smooth, black vinyl-bound edition would show up in the mailbox. How I treasured those books! When the subscription ran out, I checked out Agatha Christie books from the library. Even in college, I was still reading her mysteries. Inevitably, I came to that sad day when I read the last paragraph on the last page of the last of her mysteries. I was both proud of my accomplishment, and mournful of the loss. (Little did I know, at that young age, that I just needed to wait 20 years or so to forget all the culprits and then read them anew!)
Murder on the Orient Express didn’t veer much from its source material. Not only did it follow the plot by the numbers, it also managed to convey the essence of Hercule Poirot, the quirky detective. By including a few key scenes, we got a very clear impression of who he was, with his OCD tendencies and his aversion to moral ambiguity.
However, there are two scenes in Murder on the Orient Express that showed a side of Poirot that the books didn’t explore much, if at all. They are played out in the solitude of his cabin, so perhaps that side of him did exist, we just never read about it in her books. One could take some creative license when it comes to how Poirot spent his time alone.
Although the plot was laid out just as it is in the book, Murder on the Orient Express succeeded in capturing the changing moods of the story. The beginning of the movie had a light-hearted, comical tone, with only hints at a darker mystery hiding in the story. As the movie progressed, it gradually and expertly changed the tone from comical to dark and terrible. Murder on the Orient Express could have skimmed over or mishandled the tragedy at the center of the story. Instead, it masterfully guided the audience from the sunlight surface of the mystery, down to the murky depths of loss and revenge.
What a roster of A-list actors! Murder on the Orient Express has an incredible cast, which, no doubt, will be the main reason audiences flock to see it. And there’s someone for everyone.
Young fans will be impressed with Daisy Ridley’s performance as the governess, as well as Leslie Odom, Jr.’s performance as the doctor.
Middle-aged fans, like myself, will be thrilled to see Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz as the gangster, aging femme fatale, arrogant professor and pious sister, respectively.
Older audiences will enjoy watching Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi as the entitled princess and the trusted butler.
Kenneth Branagh embodied Hercule Poirot so completely that I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
The most remarkable aspect of everyone’s performance, however, could be chalked up to the director, also Branagh. Each actor’s portrayal was a study in stillness. When Poirot interviewed the suspects, the shots were tight and close on the them, which forced the actors to tell their tale only from the neck up. They told their entire stories, from beginning to end, in just the emotions that flitted across their faces and filled their eyes. There was no wild gesticulation, no flailing about and no chewing the scenery, so to speak. They just simply lived in the skin of their characters, and allowed their true selves to show one blink at a time.
Murder on the Orient Express was gorgeous to watch. The sets and costumes were gloriously accurate, but they didn’t overwhelm the cast or the movie. (There are actors and actresses who can’t wear anything that dates past their birthday without looking clumsy and stiff.)
The beginning of the movie was all yellows, tans and creams, to match the desert setting of Jerusalem, as well as the sunny attitude of Poirot. The train itself was an Art Deco delight, decorated in lush scarlets, sparkling crystal and stylish sconces. Nightfall brought not only a murder, but also a change in visual style. The dark night and the snowy setting changed the color tones to dark blue and purple, somber tones.
Branagh knew how to show off the setting and costumes to great effect. He painted landscapes and portraits in lots of shots, almost as much as he directed the action.
I highly recommend seeing Murder on the Orient Express. Blockbuster or not, the movie is a top-notch drama.
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