The night before I saw Murder On The Orient Express, I saw Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age tale about growing up in Sacramento. Coming out of that film, we all argued about which of us it truly “belonged” to. “How could you understand it, you’re not even a woman.” “Woman? Please, you didn’t even grow up in central California!”
We all felt like the movie was ours, albeit for slightly different reasons. I mention this because watching Murder On The Orient Express was almost the precise opposite experience — a beautifully made, lovingly crafted thing designed for… well, someone else, clearly. The paradox is that because Lady Bird was so hyper-specific to its creator’s experience, its appeal was more universal. Murder On The Orient Express, by contrast, is a collection of broad archetypes and writerly tricks designed to appeal to a mass audience, and the result is that it feels like we’re watching it through thick museum glass, a faraway curio whose relevance has been lost to history.
It doesn’t start out that way. Kenneth Branagh (who previously directed six or seven Shakespeare adaptations and Thor) directs, and stars. He has such a facility for monumental compositions and sweeping panorama that at first he seems like the perfect director for an interwar art deco exotic set in Europe’s most tastefully appointed cities. I had a huge smile on my face throughout the first sequence, in which the hero — the quadruple mustachio’d Belgian obsessive Hercule Poirot (AIR-kewl pwa-ROE, played by Branagh) — solves the theft of an ancient relic and thereby thwarts a religious riot in 1934 Jerusalem (that is, after forcing his boy-servant to fetch him two perfectly identically sized eggs for his Asperger’s breakfast). I thought the film would simply sweep me away with its picturesque magnificence. It’s not hard to imagine some barely literate young studio exec hearing this pitch and thinking “It’s Grand Budapest Hotel meets Snowpiercer!”
My hope of simply enjoying the film’s grand vistas was dashed soon after Poirot boarded the titular train. If a movie this beautiful — the costumes, the sets, the sheer variety of mustaches — had been even moderately light on plot it’d be easy to enjoy. Instead, the story stops moving right around the time the train does, and it becomes what feels like the world’s most overwritten murder plot, where almost every character gets a scene where they tear off a wig and explain their evil plan. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be a murder mystery, and one of the most famous of all time, an adaptation of a 1934 Agatha Christie novel. Which raises the perfectly valid question of what exactly I expected. I’m not sure. But I can tell you that in 2017 the story feels like exactly like what it is — a pulp novel aimed at my grandma (she’s dead).
On the Criminal podcast a few weeks back, the show profiled Marilyn Stasio, who writes a column about murder mysteries in The New York Times. Stasio decried the navel gazing that’s become convention in modern crime novels, where the story is almost always told by a gushy narrator, usually a kind of alter ego or stand-in for the author, who comes to be more important than the mystery itself. Shut up about yourself, tell me about the murder, went the basic gist of Stasio’s argument. At the time, she convinced me.
Watching Murder On The Orient Express, though, I began to understand why the traditional murder mystery has gone out of fashion. In a cast that includes Judi Dench as a Russian Princess, Michelle Pfeiffer as a horny divorcée, Johnny Depp as a mafioso, and Willem Dafoe as a proto-Nazi Austrian professor (among others), the characters are all vividly sketched, their motives diagrammed to an obnoxious degree. But they’re all so grandiose and faux exotic that there’s a self-obliterating quality to all their bloviating, where the more they talk, the less recognizably human they seem — and the more they seem like two-dimensional trading cards in a murder board game. As Pfeiffer’s character tells Depp’s, so many men would be so much more attractive if they could just not talk so much.
And then there’s the plot. Ugh, the plot. So much plot. Every character has an elaborate yet uninteresting origin story (usually just live-narrated to us by Poirot, like a perfect counter example to the show-don’t-tell rule) capped off by an implausible connection to an earlier crime clearly inspired by the Lindbergh Baby. Or as it’s known here, the Armstrong Baby, the child of a famous flyer kidnapped and killed by a dastardly swarthy eye-talian named Cassetti. In fact, they talk about the Cassetti case so much, including flashbacks (which are even stagier than the already incredibly stagey present action) that you wonder why we couldn’t just watch a movie about that case if it was so important.
As the story gradually retreats into the past, all its momentum grinds to a halt. The sweeping, kinetic road mystery becomes static, culminating in a shot where Branagh basically gives up on movement completely and just stages all the characters on one side of a table like The Last Supper while Poirot screams their motivations at them. Is this how this genre is supposed to be done? Murder On The Orient Express is otherwise so thoroughly tasteful that I assume it must be. But if it is, I hope it stays dead. By the end I felt like Royal Tenenbaum watching Margot’s play.
“Well, did you at least think the characters were well developed?”
“What characters? This is a bunch of actors dressed up in costumes.”