Murder on the Orient Express: Bad Mustache, Good Movie

When I saw the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel “Murder on the Orient Express” my initial reaction was “My God, what an appalling mustache.”

It’s true. In addition to directing the movie, Branagh also plays Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot. I associate Poirot with David Suchet, who played Poirot on TV from 1989 to 2013, which is frankly astonishing. Suchet’s Poirot always had an immaculate mustache, whereas Branagh’s version seemed to have an overgrown monstrosity that looked to me like a Civil War general’s facial hair.

Image: 20th Century Fox

I was also nervous about Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot in general. Branagh is a very talented actor and filmmaker, but he tends to be his own worst enemy. In films in which he both directs and stars, he always gives himself a lot of screen time. I get the impression that he’s got a bit of an ego. I was concerned that his portrayal of Poirot would be too over-the-top, that he would exaggerate Poirot’s accent and mannerisms far too much.

Fortunately, he reined it in, delivering a far more restrained performance than I had been expecting. There are a couple of moments that don’t quite work, such as a moment early in the film in which Poirot steps in horse poop. But these moments don’t overwhelm the film. Despite the Stonewall Jackson mustache, Branagh is quite good as Poirot, and the film as a whole follows his lead. It’s not perfect, but it’s entertaining and engaging.

Aside from Branagh, there are tons of great actors in the movie. Branagh has given himself a hell of a cast to work with, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley. All of them are great, even if some feel underutilized.

If you’re concerned about spoilers, don’t worry. I won’t give anything major away. The story is exactly what you would think of from the title: a group of people who are mostly strangers to one another are on a train together for a few days, until one of them turns up dead. The train gets stopped by an avalanche so they’re stuck together until workers for the train company come and dig them out, and one of them is a killer.

It’s an irresistible premise, and Branagh is able to mine it for all of the drama and suspense he can get. The movie also looks great, and there are a lot of shots that look gorgeous. It must have been a ton of fun to work on this film, everything and everyone in it looks fantastic. The costumes are immaculate and the sets are beautiful, and even Poirot’s absurd mustache starts to look natural once you get used to it.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The trailers for the movie make it look more action-packed than it really is. This is not an action movie, it’s a murder mystery. If you come into it expecting slow-motion action sequences like something from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, you’re going to be disappointed. This is an old-school whodunit. Poirot is a detective, not an action hero. One could say the same about Holmes of course, but I digress.

The movie has its flaws. A couple plot elements are somewhat unclear, and certain aspects of the film have an air of theatricality that doesn’t quite ring true. I saw the movie with the family, and we all agreed that whenever people were outside in the snow, they never looked particularly cold, despite the fact that they were in the middle of the damn mountains. These flaws don’t ruin the experience, but they are noticeable.

There are also quite a few funny moments. Not all of them work (see: horse poop) but a lot of them do. Poirot in this film has a certain knack for comedic understatement that leads to a couple of good chuckles, and it’s easy to see that Branagh is having fun playing Poirot and not taking himself too seriously. And how could it not be fun to play such a great character? I especially liked Poirot’s high-pitched giggles that he uttered while reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Branagh’s adaptation is not perfect by any means, but it’s fun and engaging and presents a compelling mystery with a surprising outcome. It was surprising to me at least because I have not read Christie’s book, nor have I seen any of the previous film or TV versions of Murder on the Orient Express. From what I understand the movie is largely faithful to the book, with the biggest differences being that some of the film’s characters are changed slightly from their literary counterparts.

Branagh has made a fun and suspenseful murder mystery, and it takes place in a world in which the viewer can’t help but be swept up in. It’s fun to be a part of the movie’s world, and even though the ride is a bit bumpy at times it still gets you there in the end.

Next week, it’s back to superheroes with the long-awaited superhero ensemble Justice League. It’s got a lot to live up to, with 2017 having been a standout year for superhero cinema (Logan, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor Ragnarok were all excellent). Early buzz has been encouraging, so hopefully Justice League will be closer to Wonder Woman than Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad. Tune in next week to find out.

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