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‘Murder on the Orient Express’ teeters between nostalgic eye-candy and flavorless detective work

(courtesy of the ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ facebook page)

What do you get when you put a shady twentieth-century art dealer, a racist German professor and a Frenchman with a mustache so thick it’s practically its own character on a luxury train? A joke with a questionable punch line. Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in this vibrant, ethnically diverse adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie mystery novel, “Murder on the Orient Express,” and a reimagining of the 1974 film of the same name. However, while the cast may be grand, bringing together a baker’s dozen of A-list actors and actresses, the film’s see-saw pacing forces this locomotive off-track, and there’s nothing Branagh’s incredibly silver mustache can do to stop it.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is the world’s greatest detective – or so he boastfully informs everyone when villainy is afoot. After boarding the gorgeous Orient Express with a group of 12 other rich strangers, an abrupt murder – hence the film’s title – takes the acclaimed detective out of his vacation and sends him on a dangerous investigation. This may just be the one case that the acclaimed detective cannot solve, though.

The film is setup up like a classic game of “Clue,” grouping together a seemingly random variety of strangers into a sinister plot of murder, only to have one of them be the culprit behind all the madness. Where “Murder on the Orient Express” stands out, however, is the aristocratic setting of the train, which serves as both the investigation playground for Poirot, as well as the perfect way to confine all the suspects in a linear tube of mayhem. This is where the film hits all the right notes, perfectly encapsulating the grandeur of the upper-class lifestyle with cozy cabins, endless amounts of steak and finely dressed men who down whiskey as though each glass is a breath of fresh air.

The colors are vibrant and immensely inviting, the warm interior brilliantly contrasting with the snowy outside setting. Everything feels somewhat like a candy shop, though, one that teases you into looking at all that it offers, but never allows you to touch anything. I wanted to explore the vastness of the Orient Express, but it left me only wanting more time to sit and drink tea under the warm candlelight.

With the isolation of the train, though, nothing ever feels that claustrophobic; the passengers are free to roam about the train with ease, and can even step outside due to a physical derailing that occurs at the end of the first act. It just so happens that the plot decides to take a similar path around the same time.

The biggest obstacle that “Murder on the Orient Express” runs into is that it can’t quite decide what type of mystery it wants to be: a dark and thrilling adventure, or a family-friendly journey that joins its clues together like a game of connect the dots. Branagh attempts to blend these ideas to create something memorable and unique, but the tone can’t help but flip-flop, unsure whether to strike suspense and isolation in the viewer or lighthearted fun. It drags you along with the promise of mystery candy, but the end result is stale and without much flavor. Because of this, the audience will do less murder investigating, and more time trying to piece together the complex character backstories.

Speaking of the characters, it’s Christie’s love for large handfuls of multidimensional suspects that keeps the clouded narrative from fully reaching the light it deserves. Everyone has a history, which is typically a great approach when it comes to mystery, but with roughly 15 people to keep track of it gets tiresome. Racial accusations and sexual innuendos fill the air but rarely get addressed, hinting at the complexity of A-listers like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley, yet they are not fully embellished.

With that said, the cast is able to bring a darkened sense of charisma to each of their shady roles, creating a group of passengers worth hanging out with. Branagh as the French detective is truly the star, with his dense accent and walrus mustache providing the humor needed for his character to really come to life. He’s haunted yet playful; it’s when these two elements blend into one that his leading role masks some of the film’s noticeable mistakes.

With all of that out on the table, I’d be lying if I called “Murder on the Orient Express” a failed murder mystery, because it isn’t. While the plot teeters back and forth – you may need to take notes in order to keep track of all the characters – there’s no denying the nostalgia that Branagh allows to seep through the film’s imperfections. A couple added twists keep the classic “whodunit” genre alive and well, even if not in tip-top shape. It will feed off your curiosity, coaxing you along until you decide whether to stay until the end of the ride, or get off at the next stop. It’s a tricky investigation, but one worth waiting it out for.

Charlie Turner can be reached at Chturner@umass.edu.

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