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Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

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Kenneth Branagh brings Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to the big screen with a meticulous eye for detail and a star-studded cast but the story is by no means full steam ahead.

Set on a steam train stranded in the midst of expansive, snowy mountains, Murder on the Orient Express showcases some incredibly striking scenery emphasised by Branagh’s natural ability to frame a shot. In fact, the director and star ensured that all elements of the film’s technical makeup were completed with the upmost precision and the result is visually stunning.

It is clear that a great deal of thought went into every prop, set design and costume, so much so that nothing ever felt out of place – unless, of course, it was meant to. With this came a heightened level of authenticity, guaranteeing viewers are completely immersed in the fictional world.

A 1930s steam train is not something every 21st century person has experienced but Branagh’s construction of the film’s set and the way the camera captures it is, no doubt, the next best thing.

The array of creative and captivating camera shots used ensure that, despite being trapped in one location for the majority of the film, the setting never gets boring and is in fact one of the most interesting elements of the film.

With this exciting setting, one would expect an equally exciting story. The label ‘murder-mystery’ carries with it connotations of suspense and enigma and, being a classic story not shy of onscreen adaptations, Branagh faced the job of giving Murder on the Orient Express a new lease of life and reinvigorating the suspense pre-weakened by the familiarity of the story.

This is where the film is let down. The suspense usually found in a film of this type is diminished by a notably slow pace. The opening scene shows Poirot solving a crime completely unrelated to the rest of the plot. Whilst it showcases his clear talent and reveals important aspects of his personality, it gets the film off to a slow start and could have been avoided by embedding the elements into the main plot.

Even when the actual story begins, the pacing is off. Seemingly minor points are lengthy and exaggerated and key developments seem to be rushed. Although one could argue that this portrays Poirot’s calculated and deliberate investigative style, ultimately the pace and story progression suffers – at least in entertainment terms.

The film is also very dialogue heavy which, like the slow pace, has its reasons but at times gets somewhat wearing. Through the dialogue, viewers learn of the details of the case, the inner workings of Poirot’s brain and each characters’ attitudes which is where the film succeeds.

However, at times, the dialogue is clumsy; stating the obvious or simply things that would have been better left unsaid. For a detective there can never be too much information, but for viewers of a mystery the case is the exact opposite. Too much talking, especially from Poirot, only led to an overly predictable resolution.

One of the most appealing aspects of the film is its cast. Filled with veterans of the industry, all performances were guaranteed to be powerful before any acting even took place. Kenneth Branagh put as much passion into his portrayal of Poirot as he did with the direction of the film and Michelle Pfieffer reached intense levels of emotion.

The chemistry between all actors is effortless but some certainly got more time to shine than their co-stars. Whilst some characters are naturally more of a central role than others, it seemed wasteful to have actors known for dominating the screen only shown in short snippets. The likes of Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe, for example, give brilliant performances when they have the chance but unfortunately see little screen time, leaving viewers wanting that little bit more.

Overall, Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express missed the mark in terms of electrifying entertainment, deeming it a slow (and predictable) journey with star-studded passengers and some beautiful views along the way.

Murder on the Orient Express is out now, distributed by 20th Century Fox.

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