What could be better than a movie about Kenneth Branagh solving crime against a 1930s era backdrop all while gallivanting on a train through Europe? As it turns out, most things actually. I was very excited to see this movie, partly because of its star studded cast, and party because I’ve never experienced the story, either in the form of the famous mystery novel written by Agatha Christie in 1934, or the film made by Sidney Lumet in 1974. While the film was entertaining, it ultimately disappointed me due to various artistic choices and the forgiveness of violence at the end.
Let’s start with the good. The cast certainly does not disappoint. The long list of stars in the cast begins with Kenneth Branagh playing the world famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and includes a vast range of talent as the other passengers on the train, from Leslie Odom Jr. to Josh Gad to Dame Judi Dench, all on one screen. The range of talent and characters keeps the ride interesting and the tensions in the throughout the crime high. Another high note of the film was the lavish design of the Orient Express that made me long to eat cake while looking out over snowy mountains from the comfort of a luxe train car.
Unfortunately, those elements were all that I relished, so without further ado, let’s move to the bad. While the protagonist, Poirot, should have been likeable, he fell flat in many respects. For one, his character was constructed as a detective successful only because of his compulsions and ability to see the world “as it should be.” This version of detective is one that we see all the time in current detective stories from the updated Sherlock series to the series Monk. While Poirot might have seemed new in the ‘30s, his characterization seemed derivative of other now famous detectives. His back story and lost love were also mentioned several times but never explained in full. Last, there was the moustache. The famous moustache spanned a third of Poirot’s face, and made it difficult to concentrate on anything else. I was seriously distracted by that moustache and not in a good way.
Second, there was the casting choice of Johnny Depp. While he might play a great former mobster and corrupt businessman, Depp is part of vein sexual misconduct allegations in Hollywood. After he and Amber Heard split in 2015, Heard made statements to the police regarding verbal and physical abuse from Depp. It’s difficult to say how much an artist’s personal life should be connected to their professional career, but we should think critically about sexual misconduct, and how much we may or may not appear to condone it by supporting those careers.
Back to film itself, there were several aspects of the film design that were over designed to the point of distraction. One such aspect was the constant panoramic views of the Orient Express itself. While beautiful and lavish, too many of these shots became repetitive and cheapened the grandeur. Another major distraction, much like the moustache of Poirot were several camera angles that took away from the action. One was a scene shot entirely from overhead, conversations and all. Another was several passengers Poirot was interrogating shot through a cut glass effect, creating doubles of their faces. While one shot or two of each could have been effective, entire scenes became hard to follow and flat.
Last, the ending was completely thrilling and unexpected, in good ways and in bad. The story ended with an incredible plot twist that had been set up well throughout the film without being at all obvious. The crime wasn’t committed by any one passenger on the train, it was committed by every passenger on the train, which accounted for their airtight alibis, the overabundance of evidence, and the way that seemingly randomly, so many people connected to an old crime ended up together on the train. Once Poirot finally puts the story together, however, he seems almost moved by their commitment to the performance and the way so many lives had been destroyed by grief. In the end, no one is convicted for the violent crime that all of the passengers worked together to commit. I was confused and frustrated because his conclusion appeared to condone vigilante justice, which resulted in another violent crime. After all, violence tends to breed violence, and this case was no exception.
While the film was a fun watch with notes of seriousness, it definitely had major shortcomings and disappointments. I would recommend it for a night in, but wouldn’t say it’s worth going out of your way to watch.
Main image courtesy of Abby Russo