Agatha Christie’s famed novel, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted so many times you could ask the question: what does Kenneth Branagh’s version bring to the table?
The plot sees famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) board the Orient Express to Calais for some rest and recuperation. His journey, however, is interrupted when one of his fellow passengers is brutally murdered.
With everyone a suspect, Poirot must use his powers of detection to find out who’s telling the truth, who’s lying and what would cause someone to commit such a murder.
Murder on the Orient Express is a throwback to when films relied on star wattage, so it does feel quaint in that regard. But the film’s sense of the traditional and its determination to stay true to Christie’s tome arguably holds it back from being memorable.
Murder is a lush production, suited for audiences unfamiliar with the original text. But even if you’ve never read it, you’ll know what to expect (the clue is in the title) and while Murder is entertaining, the mystery as its heart is oddly uninvolving.
Poirot is the central character and has a moustache so fantastic it could be a character in itself, but he arguably takes too much screen time from the rest of the cast. Murder isn’t so much a ‘whoddunit?’ but a ‘whydunnit?’.
That shift means you’re never truly invested in the characters, despite a huge cast that includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley. It's not helped by a script that can only offer a suite of personalities rather in-depth portraits – a result of the sheer number of characters requiring attention. The cast itself is fine, with some outliers (Sergei Polunin's lack of acting experience shows), but they just aren't given enough to work with.
Michael Green’s script asks questions but reveals less, the emotional stakes not really landing until a denouement that teeters on melodrama. The lack of tension is an issue, as is the pacing, which makes for an uneven second-half.
That’s not to say the Murder doesn’t have its qualities. It’s an opulent, slick looking production with a sense of theatricality, charm and fun. And the scale of it; from sweeping camera shots to its diverse, multi-racial cast, make it a watchable effort.
You just can’t help but wonder if Murder on the Orient Express had taken a different route, whether it could have sizzled instead of just fizzled.
Murder was shot on 65mm and scanned at 8K, with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos confirming 70mm prints and 4K HDR DCPs (digital cinema package) for its theatrical release from which this was sourced, making for a native 4K film.
And it does look absolutely resplendent on 4K HDR Blu-ray. The beginning in Jerusalem makes for a sun-dipped start and you'll immediately notice that the film is a few notches brighter than the SDR Blu-ray.
As usual there’s more detail available, the tailoring of various suits and dresses popping more than they do on the Blu-ray. Textures are picked up better and there’s more definition, clarity and subtlety to them. You’re able to pick up some things, like the pink of Poirot’s eyelids in the opening sequence, that you can’t see in the HD version.
Complexions are varied but appear accurate, Branagh’s orange tones perhaps a bit overstated. The 65mm photography is used to good effect, especially when the camera is trained on a face which enables plenty of detail to come to the fore (we can only imagine how big Poirot's tache looked in the cinema).
One such case is Josh Gad’s alcoholic Hector MacQueen, who has a thin film of sweat on his face throughout here that's harder to detect on the Blu-ray.
Colours have more punch, and for a film that relies on lighting to create mood, the delicate shading and depth of an image are at times stunning. The moment when Depp’s Rachett meets Pfeiffer’s Caroline Hubbard in the carriage is gorgeously lit. While it doesn’t fare too badly on the Blu-ray, it does lacks that softness and almost velvety texture that the 4K can display.
Contrast is good, with clean whites and blacks firmly defined. The amount of film grain really adds to its 1930s setting and is never distracting, if anything it adds more texture to a classy, lush looking presentation. The film itself is fine, but the picture performance is quite beautiful.
Considering the action is confined to a stationary train, Murder on the Orient Express isn't the first film you’d think of for an Atmos track, but it gets a satisfying presentation here.
It makes its presence felt during the Istanbul sequence where we meet all the characters for the first time. Shot in a single take, it’s a scene full of detail whether it’s the hustle and bustle of the people in the train station, the hissing from the engine and the various noises in the background. It feels as if it’s happening all around you, the density of the scene creating an atmosphere that draws you in.
Height channels are used, subtly so at times. Patrick Doyle’s delicate score weaves its way through the front speakers and height channels to produce a spacious and room-filling sound. Bass is satisfyingly rendered with good solid heft, especially during the avalanche that halts the train.
Otherwise this is a film where dialogue is of great importance and it’s served well here. Placed predominantly in the centre channel, there’s a clarity throughout, helpful given the number of accents on show as Branagh lays his Belgian accent on thick. It’s all rendered well, with nary a dropped line.
Murder on the Orient Express is a mystery told with flair and style by Branagh, but the lack of tension and intrigue means it's only a decent telling of Christie's story.
The production design is what really grabs your attention and despite the cramped confines of the setting, this is likely to be the most expansive and gorgeous looking interpretation of the novel. The 65mm photography is used to great effect, the 4K HDR articulating every detail this production has to offer.
The Atmos track is used to fill the room, with a few moments where height channels are used, but otherwise is a satisfying accompaniment to the visuals.
Murder on the Orient Express is an okay film, but the real find is in its A/V performance. If only it dug into the characters and created a better sense of tension, it could have offered more than just surface delights.
Inside the case you get a digital download code. Otherwise all the extras are housed on the Blu-ray disc and they are:
- Agatha Christie: An Intimate Portrait
- Let's Talk about Hercule Poirot
- The Art of Murder
- All aboard: Filming Murder on the Orient Express
- Unusual Suspects: Part One, Two and Three
- Music of Murder
- Deleted scenes
- Commentary with director Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green