SPOILER ALERT: If you've never read the Agatha Christie novel or seen earlier versions of this story (which I hadn't before seeing this film in theaters), the ending will have a bit of a twist. Therefore, I am giving a clear spoiler alert here at the outset for anyone who would like to see the film before reading this review.
I'm a sucker for ensemble casts, and Murder on the Orient Express has it in spades. As big name after big name comes on screen, there's seemingly no end to the firepower of this cast. One of my favorite character actors - Derek Jacobi - gets completely swallowed up by the sheer tonnage of acting power that is jostling for screentime. He, as I can also say for most of this cast, puts in a fine performance. However, my major question heading into seeing the film was whether or not the story could support such a fine group of thespians.
In my opinion, it does not.
However, that is not to say that this is a bad film. I found it to be a perfectly adequate experience at the theater. While I would probably watch this film again, I don't think I'll be breaking down any doors to do so. Surely, my main reason for revisiting this film a second time would be to see this cast, not because of the way the material is handled. Let me tell you what I mean.
Kenneth Branagh directs and acts in this adaptation of a famous Agatha Christie novel. He plays the character Hercule Poirot - an obsessive-compulsive detective who must have things come out evenly. The movie does a fine job of drawing his character from the beginning. We clearly understand his motives and desires. He is a very good character. In this opening scene, we watch as Poirot catches a would-be thief by carefully dissecting the evidence. This scene is very important to where the movie will take us from here.
Once the movie finds its titular setting on the train, the enormity of the ensemble cast begins to be revealed. Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi all bring their considerable talents to the screen. Inherently, with such a big cast, a problem that arises is getting screen time for everyone and utilizing that screentime well. On the first front, it's simply difficult. I would have loved to see Jacobi in more scenes, because he is just a fine actor. But, as I said earlier, the rest of the cast jockeys for screen time ahead of him.
As far as how the actors are utilized, I think the film succeeds on most levels. Each individual character is given the ability to showcase their traits early on. In a film like this, it is vital that the audience learns enough about each character to differentiate as the film continues. I would specifically highlight Dafoe, Jacobi, Dench, Gad and Pfeiffer. In such a large cast, those five stood out from the rest, and each gave very good performances.
Inevitably, as the title suggests, we find that a murder has occurred on the train. At various points, we suspect most if not all of the passengers. Along the way, we see Poirot at work and we assume that this famous detective will carefully dissect the murder just as he did a plot to steal a valuable item earlier in the film. It all moves along basically as you would expect a murder mystery to unravel - until the end.
Now, I probably would not usually discuss a "twist-ending" as much as I am going to here. However, I think the ending is where the film reaches for, but ultimately misses its mark. I gave a spoiler alert at the outset, but be advised if you have read this far before seeing the movie. What follows is a discussion of the ending of the film, so turn back if you'd like to see the movie with a clean slate.
By the end of the film, Poirot realizes that all of the passengers have had a part in the murder. By this point, we also find out that the man murdered (Ratchett, played by Depp) had himself kidnapped and murdered a young girl to whom all the other characters are somehow connected. In a climactic scene (where Pfeiffer is given her most hefty lines), Poirot unearths the plot to kill Ratchett, which was all masterminded by Caroline Hubbard (played by Pfeiffer). Poirot recuses himself saying that the lives of these 12 people had all been turned upside down by the first murder. Who is he to say that the second is an unacceptable act of vengeance? He recalls one of his own earlier lines by saying that this case has forced him to see the gray in the world.
I think there are some truths in there about how no one is blameless in society and some things are never completely black and white. My issue is with how evenly the film ties it all up in a bow at the end. We see Poirot go back to his OCD detective ways as the rest of the characters literally ride off into the sunset.
Let's start with Poirot. The film does such a good job of drawing his character at the beginning and really throughout the film. But, to have him let all the passengers go at the end, we must accept that his character has taken a complete 180. I didn't feel that this decision was earned. Poirot is one who carefully considers all his decisions. To make it seem as if he came to this monumental turnaround all of a sudden is disengenuous, in my opinion. We need to see him carefully weighing this "gray area justice" before we can accept that his character will completely change from what we've already seen.
We do get a scene where he is sitting alone on the train, carefully considering the case. But most of that scene is given to him talking to the picture of his deceased love interest. This is a thread that is left completely unexplored. We have no idea who she is or what happened. However, that scene does showcase what I find to be an intriguing directorial choice from Branagh.
In this scene, as in many others, reflections play a key part. We see Poirot's face reflected in the window next to him. At various other times we see the reflection of other characters in mirrors or glass. Since this film deals so much in who these characters really are, I think this is a poignant visual cue. We can lie all we want, but our reflections cannot be altered. What's there is there, reflections make no edits.
Another powerful metaphor is the train itself. It seems to represent the human soul, with its many compartments and hidden secrets. When the murder of Depp's character occurs, the train is derailed by snow from a mountain avalanche - signifying the coldness of such an act an the effect it has on our soul. Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos do a fine job of bringing the train to life, almost as if it were another character. However, while we're on the subject of cinematography, the movie's principals went for waaaay too much CGI to create the mountain exteriors for the train ride. The digital hand is readily apparent. The sunlight looks like it has too much sheen, and it all just feels icky. I'm not in awe of the majestic views at all, it just makes me want to get back inside the train.
As for the other characters, the movie wants us to be on their side at the end. While we as the audience certainly feel for them, I think the movie makes a grave misstep that keeps us from fully buying into the idea of these 12 as justified co-conspirators.
We do see the original murder carried out by Depp's character in flashbacks during the film. However, they all come after we have already seen the murder of Depp. So, at the point, narratively the film has set up a structure where we are on Depp's side, in a sense. We know he was a bad guy, but this is murder. We know that's wrong, and from that point we're bent on finding out who killed him to bring that person to justice. I think the film should have shown us the original murder earlier, before Depp is murdered. You wouldn't even have to see Depp or know that his character was the murderer. But the film can't let us become sympathetic to him if the ending is going to work.
In a nutshell, I don't think the film earned the ending it goes for. It wants to be a thoughtful discussion of justice and nuance in society. We are all often quick to judge, but many matters of life and death deserve more careful inspection. I think that is a valuable message, but it is clumsily handled here. The cast itself is worth the price of admission, but the movie isn't able to support its star-studded ensemble. If the narrative had been smoothed out a bit, this film has the makings of a powerful piece of art. As it is, I left the theater on a mostly flat note.
Note on content: This film is rated PG-13, mostly for the violence and gore it depicts. We are given shots of characters stabbing other characters, and we do see some blood in the aftermath of the murder. However, there is no sexual content to speak of other than a few suggestive lines at various points in the film. There is certainly no nudity, and profanity is mild.