The direction of “Murder on the Orient Express” is as bumpy and nauseating as the mountain train voyage at the center of the film. When the camera should be moving, its stuck in awkward character close-ups taken at bizarre, unflattering angles. When it should be still and silent, the camera zigs and zags fervently, with choppy editing distorting our sense of time and place. It feels like an Agatha Christie-autographed fidget spinner, something we feel we need to hold close to our face and move constantly for no other reason than we can.
Based on the Christie’s beloved story, “Murder on the Orient Express” follows expert detective Hercule Poirot as he questions the motives and malices of a dozen train passengers after a sleazy passenger has been killed. The passengers earnestly answer Poirot’s questions, revealing bits and fragments of the true sinister plot lurking behind the train’s hollow steel doors. The cinematography is stunning, with landscapes so serene and magnificent you’ll be devastated when you learn Amtrak doesn’t have an affordable route through those locations.
Once we give a hearty goodbye to the pretty settings outside the train, we sadly say hello to the unappealing characters lurking inside. Their personalities are so indistinct and forgettable that we easily forget their potential motives for committing the crime or why they’re even on the train in the first place. Only Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer’s characters stand out as people with personalities, while the rest of the star-studded cast feel like their agents accidentally cast them in some second-rate Agatha Christie dinner theater.
And then there’s Kenneth Branagh, the man who plays Poirot and the man responsible for directing the film. Michael Green wrote the screenplay but Branagh clearly made this a show about himself, like Poirot is some legendary icon of literature, a moving force that other characters and even the audience should always appreciate and cherish. The character is entertaining but not as much as the film desperately makes him out to be. Poirot is unrelatable and overpowering, a force of nature but not of humanity.
Kenneth Branagh has starred and directed a slew of literary adaptations throughout his career, so it wouldn’t be surprising that he might have been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s stories, just waiting for that moment where he could play Poirot or direct someone else as Poirot. But his fandom for the character overpowered the subject matter of the story itself, the cinematic equivalent of your friend who overshares baby photos on Facebook. Branagh is fine enough as Poirot but someone else should have taken the directing reigns from his hands to establish the proper mood and style that this story deserved.