Hollywood embraces an overabundance of adaptations, with many lamenting the death of original ideas. It’s gotten to a point where we now have remakes of previous adaptations — many of which were already considered perfect by critics.
While adaptations are inherently problematic, adapting a classic and influential work to the modern day can be disastrous.
If one tries to stray too far, the adaptation is flawed, missing what made the original great in favor of unneeded change. If one tries to bring every word onto the screen, then the film is cliched and tired, as the original’s influence can still be felt today.
This conundrum leads us to the unnecessary “Murder on the Orient Express,” which suffers from the latter instead of the former. With Kenneth Branagh at the helm as director, producer, and lead actor as Hercule Poirot, it’s not surprising that this version feels authentic. Although, I must admit I cannot speak to the film’s faithfulness to the 1934 Agatha Christie murder mystery of the same name, as I’ve never read it or seen the 1974 film adaptation.
Poirot is a world famous Belgian detective with an eye for detail and a perfectionist attitude. While riding the Orient Express for a much needed vacation, the train is stopped by a snow avalanche and a mysterious murder. With everyone on board a suspect, Poirot must find out who the killer is as his skills are put to the test.
Despite my lack of knowledge with the source material, it is clear from how the story plays out that everything in this film has been done before, to the point where few aspects of this adaptation feel noteworthy.
The actors do little to stand out. Everyone plays their part with a reasonable mixture of drama and realism, although some, like Penélope Cruz, are too dramatic at points. The only one who escapes mundanity is Branagh himself as Poirot, who clearly is having the most fun portraying the character, while everyone else sticks to their tired archetypes.
On the other hand, the camerawork and cinematography are consistently impressive, utilizing long shots and beautiful sets to show that the love and care put into the production. Many shots are cleverly symbolic or simply eye-catching, but these serve as mere decorations covering the bland foundation.
What hinders “Orient Express” is its source material is so influential that everything making it unique has been done before. Unless the viewer has never read or heard the story, or only wants to appreciate how well the book is adapted, there’s nothing to really see here. Neither the actors or the scenes go above what is expected, turning the intriguing mystery into a mundane affair. The film did just enough to maintain my attention the entire two hours, culminating in a finale that is as impressive as the film thinks it is.
And that is the ultimate sin of this film: it thinks it’s more important, grand, and classy than it actually is. It is difficult to put my finger on what exactly doesn’t work or what could have been done better, but many shots and sequences feel like they are supposed to be more meaningful. It feels as if the movie is just going through the motions with no big surprises, no grand twists beyond the final 20 minutes.
“Orient Express” is as basic as Hollywood murder mysteries go, and it tries to hide this with a classy style and a nostalgic tone. Yet, it never quite comes together, culminating in a movie not worth watching. At most it exists as a possibly good adaptation, but a forgettable viewing experience.
Samuel Goodrich, Staff Writer