‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Review: Not a must-see, despite a brilliant mustache

First, let it be known that the Imagine Dragons song “Believer” doesn’t show up once in Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express, and so if you were seriously considering holding off on seeing this movie because the Fox marketing department put a weird song over the first trailer, consider yourself freed.

That’s not a joke — I’ve gotten that question in several forms over the last few days said in all seriousness, so I figured it worthwhile to answer. Still, it’s hard not to imagine the cajones it took to give a director like Branagh a decently high budget and the resources to get a great cast and to expect it to make money or draw a significant amount of cultural interest, and it feels like a gamble on an audience that might not show up. The film itself isn’t, though; it’s a well-acted but weirdly empty adaptation that does well enough as entertainment. The much-lauded mustache kicks all sorts of ass, though, and my hat’s off to whoever came up with that one.

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the novel that this film is based on, or have seen the prior one, so congratulations. You’re either getting the perspective of the neophyte audience member or that of the miserably uniformed. Either way, you’re wrong, but the mustache is right.

You’d be shocked to learn that Murder on the Orient Express is about a murder on a train going from Istanbul to London. An express train, in fact! The year is 1934 and one night on board the train, an unscrupulous art dealer who specializes in fakes, named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is stabbed 12 times as he sleeps. It’s the dead of winter, so there’s only a few passengers on the train, though it’s suspiciously well-attended for that time of the year. An avalanche derails the train, so all the prime suspects are gathered in one place with nowhere to go. Each seems disparate enough — there’s the Butler (Derek Jacobi), the Professor (Willem Dafoe), the Princess (Judi Dench) and her assistant (Olivia Colman), the Doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the assistant (Josh Gad), the woman of God (Penelope Cruz), the Countess (Lucy Boynton), the car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the Governess (Daisy Ridley), and the rich touring American (Michelle Pfeiffer).

That’s a lot of suspects!

Luckily (or unfortunately for the perpetrator), the World’s Greatest Detective is on board — no, not Batman — a plucky Belgian by the name of Hercule Poirot (Branagh). Will he crack the case? Will we see the styling tips that go into how he maintains his glorious mustache? Spoiler alert: We might!

Branagh’s Poirot is perfectly styled and crafted — for Christoph Waltz, whose eccentricities and skills as a polyglot would have paid off handsomely, even behind the explicitly silly mustache that Branagh had created for the film. As such, he does a decent enough job with the humor inherent in the man’s character, like his wild and exaggerated laughter at a page of A Tale of Two Cities or his desire for eggs of a perfect shape, but his bonafides fail him once the movie veers from pure camp into semi-serious melodrama. In short, he begins to grimace near the end and refuses to let up, and the film suffers for it. Sure, the man is an unimpeachable master actor, but he’s out of place here, and it might even be the most ego-driven project of his career, even surpassing his Hamlet. People fawn over the great detective at every stage of the plot, and Poirot himself regularly reminds him that he might be the best sleuth in the whole damn world. It helps, perhaps, to have prior knowledge of his exploits, because we don’t really get to see him detect anything over the course of the film, aside from a few and easy clues that the viewer themselves might have picked up upon as well. The single biggest break in the case comes before it even starts, which disappoints somewhat. I don’t know well enough about the specifics of the Orient Express as a novel, but it feels like something is missing. Does it feature any descriptions of the mustache? Is that book-accurate?

The rest of the ensemble is suitably cast, though with a group this large and a runtime this short — a breezy hour and 50 minutes compared to many prestige pictures of the like — few characters get a true chance to shine. Depp, the film’s most controversial element off-screen and the not-so-innocent victim on, is doing a variation on his work as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, which isn’t that great to begin with. Ridley is compelling enough, though she has enough charisma to gloss over any deficiency in the production to surround her (a scene in which she rebukes Defoe’s character over his racist beliefs using two well-placed glasses of wine is one of the few lines that truly lands as well as it should). Odom, measured and composed, and Gad, sweaty and trembling, are swell enough, and they’re tied together by a great throwaway line that killed at my screening. Pfeiffer is Pfeiffer, meaning that she’s wonderful as she always is, playing a loosey-goosey rich retiree who might be more key to the murder than she initially seems, and she navigates the tonal shift better than Branagh himself does. Others — Penelope Cruz, for one — are glossed over in the jumble, and Judi Dench’s character has two cute little dogs. It’s a good tribute to the power of collective action.

That’s all I’ve got, though I’d say the most memorable character is the mustache.

Per usual for a Branagh film, the actors are the reason to buy a ticket to this, and you’ll be stunned to know that it’s not totally cinematically compelling to be trapped in a small locale and hurried through a murder mystery. Attempts are made to expand the limited purview of the setting — a chase down a railway bridge, a Jerusalem-set prologue, the occasional flashback — but these sequences, with the exception of the humorous prologue, only distract from the best bits of the movie.

It was shot on 65mm film, adding to the prestige picture feeling, but the movie never utilizes it beyond a few scenic mountain vistas. The CGI, as well, is a bit jarring enough; the climactic avalanche feels ripped straight out of The Polar Express. All in all, Murder on the Orient Express is a bit of a mixed bag — the cast is fun, the mystery is quite compelling if rushed, and it’s glossy enough to signify that you are seeing a new movie — and it’s hard to recommend to anyone outside of Christie devotees, camp affectionados, or for people in need of Thanksgiving viewing options for older relatives who don’t have grandchildren yet and can’t see Coco or are offended that the same man who played Sid Vicious so long ago is now cast as Winston Churchill.

Still, I can see a cross-generational appeal in Poirot’s mustache, where staring at its sublime beauty could become a family holiday tradition similar to the burning of a yule log or the wonder of John Madden’s turducken.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Promotional still provided by 20th Century Fox.