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Murder on the Orient Express: Engaging, but Empty

Ryan Phillips, Editor-in-chief

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Everyone, or at least me, likes a good mystery movie. So, when I noticed Murder on the Orient Express—based, as I found out, on the 1934 detective novel by Agatha Christie—was playing, I figured, “This will be a good one.” As it turned out, the plot, which I felt was fairly simple compared to that of most mysteries, was nonetheless interesting. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), a highly esteemed Belgian detective with a self-proclaimed value of balance and compulsion against imperfections, is requested to work on a case in London. He boards the Orient Express en route from Istanbul to London, and finds himself in an onboard investigation the morning after an avalanche halts the train late at night. A dubious American passenger named Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who had previously asked for Hercule’s protection after receiving anonymous threats, is found dead with a dozen stab wounds, and Poirot is the one for the case. The movie consists largely of Poirot interrogating each passenger one by one, with the occasional unnecessary glimpse into his past love life. The unrelenting detective’s evidence eventually culminates in a seemingly extreme but undeniably valid theory regarding the murder of Ratchett, who himself had a criminal past and more connections onboard the Orient Express than Poirot had been aware of before investigating. A final revelation of the truth behind Ratchett’s murder forces Poirot to make a decision that conflicts with his perfectionistic nature, and the movie ends after Poirot agrees to take on a case in Egypt. Certainly, the novel had allowed for decent cinematic potential.

However, leaving this movie, I felt conflicted. Part of me enjoyed its stylistic, literary nature. I had been expecting a realistic movie and instead got what felt like a true novel, only on a screen. On the other hand, “contriving somehow both to dawdle and to rush, Murder on the Orient Express is handsome, undemanding, and almost wholly bereft of purpose. Green [the screenwriter] adds some heavy-duty dialogue, in the final reel, about ‘the fracture of the human soul,’ but Christie’s puzzles are too flimsy to bear such ruminative weight” (Lane). That’s right. I deigned to reference another review for my own. In my defense, I knew something about the movie felt a little off, but I felt both that I was unworthy of criticizing such an important aspect of the movie and that my belief may simply be unfounded. Lo and behold, Anthony Lane, a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993, felt the same way I did. I’d agree with Anthony’s sentiments to the fullest extent—especially his second sentence. The body of the movie passes by too hurriedly and without enough philosophical weight, such that it leads to an awkward feeling at its conclusion when Poirot expresses his predicament so profoundly. The movie feels unworthy of its ruminative conclusion.

Despite the aforementioned aspect of Murder on the Orient Express, I’d still rate it a 7/10. Anyone who enjoys movies with mystery, or perhaps just a literary vibe, or even a relatively engaging plot: watch this one!  

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Murder on the Orient Express: Engaging, but Empty