Why so many ensemble casts?

With the release of 'Murder on the Orient Express', Joe Holloran examines ensemble casts and why they might be so popular

Joe Holloran
13th November 2017
Ocean's 11. Image: YouTube
This month saw the release of a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on The Orient Express. With a star-studded cast, including actor-director Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Daisy Ridley, it is a textbook example of an ‘ensemble’ film. But, is having film roles filled by exclusively well-established actors always a good thing?

There has been a plethora of great ensemble films to hit screens in the last few years, achieving critical, if not commercial, success. 2015’s Spotlight, a film about the investigation into abuses in the Catholic Church, starred many award-winning actors, such as Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci and Rachel McAdams. The casting choices here may have several reasons behind them. It may just be that all these actors wanted a part in the film because they liked the script. Or perhaps the actors and executives knew that as more recognizable faces got behind the project, the more likely it was that the audience would want to go see it and take in the films message. If that was the case, then Spotlight is a rare example of a Hollywood film using its stars for reasons other than the box-office.

The history of ensamble casts goes back along way. Above: The Magnificent Seven (1960). Image:IMDB
The fantastic ensamble cast of the Oscar winning 2015 film Spotlight. Image:IMDB

Perhaps, the thinking behind the casting in Murder on the Orient Express was along a similar line. In this case the director and star Kenneth Branagh knew that the story alone may not be enticing enough to draw in a wide audience, the solution being to make sure the marketing focuses heavily on the cast, rather than the plot.

Many other great ensemble films have been produced over the decades; Three Kings, The Magnificent Seven, Boogie Nights, Terrance Malick’s excellent The Thin Red Line and the classic 12 Angry Men to name but a few. However, not all ensemble films work out. Some are mediocre and forgettable, like Spy Kids-3 and Battleship. Most however are of a pretty poor quality, whether its placing individual screen time over plot; Movie 43, Zoolander 2 or making the famous interact in a way that feel goofy or forced; Wild Wild West. The worst example of an ensemble film I personally can remember seeing is the catastrophically bad Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Here, we have a studio (and a director) who must have realised that the story was poor to begin with, so they thought let’s just throw as many recognizable faces in there as possible to make up for it.

Ultimately, ensemble films are judged by the same metrics as any other form of narrative cinema - the quality of the script and the vision of the director. Murder on the Orient Express seems to have both nailed down. A well loved and respected story, and a proven director in Kenneth Branagh. So, if you’re unsure about whether to give it a go just think ‘How often am I going to see Johnny Depp, Josh Gad and Olivia Coleman on screen together?

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