Based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is the latest screen adaptation of the famous crime thriller. It was most famously brought to film by Sidney Lumet in 1974 with an Oscar-winning interpretation, so Branagh’s version had a tall order to measure up to. The director assembled an all-star ensemble cast to portray the various suspects, and the hope going in was that they would be able to craft an engaging and compelling mystery that kept the audience on the edge of their seats. For the most part, Branagh is successful. Murder on the Orient Express is well-crafted entertainment whose flaws are covered up by great work from Branagh in multiple facets.
World-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is looking forward to taking a holiday after solving a case in Jerusalem. However, his vacation is short-lived; almost immediately once he arrives in Istanbul, Hercule is summoned to London, where another case demands his attention. The detective’s friend, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman), offers Poirot a seat on the Orient Express so Hercule can take the job.
Once on the train, Hercule becomes acquainted with some of his fellow passengers, including career criminal Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), among others. Initially, the trip is uneventful, but one night after the train gets derailed during an avalanche, Hercule discovers someone on the train has been murdered. Deducing that one of the passengers had to have been the perpetrator, Poirot is tasked with uncovering the mystery before the police get involved.
Some of the film’s strongest aspects come in its technical elements, as Murder on the Orient Express is a beauty to behold on the big screen. Thanks to sharp production design from Jim Clay and striking cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos, Branagh completely nails the look and feel of the story, capturing all of the period details on a large canvas. Because the film primarily takes place in a single setting (the train), it could have felt more like a stage play than movie, but Branagh makes this piece truly cinematic with his eye for fantastic imagery. Murder on the Orient Express is playing in 70 mm engagements in select markets, and those who can find a screening would be recommended to see the film in this format.
In addition to his prowess behind the camera, Branagh also shines in front of it as Poirot, a role that previously earned Albert Finney an Oscar nomination. There’s no denying Branagh is the star of the show, as he performs the part in a believable, yet theatrical, manner. His Hercule has many layers to explore; Branagh is responsible for some of the more light-hearted beats, and also serious, dramatic ones, handling both with great skill. It’s a strong portrayal that instantly stands out, and Poirot is a fun, compelling hero to get behind and watch in action. Branagh perfectly encapsulates the character’s quirks and demeanor, making himself an audience favorite few would be opposed to seeing again. He’s a strong fit for the role and also has nice chemistry with his co-stars, playing off them with ease in several back-and-forths.
Unfortunately, Hercule is the only principal player that’s awarded any kind of depth, and just about all of the supporting cast are simply there to round out the ensemble – though there are some bright spots. Depp is able to shed the real-life cartoon persona of his franchise roles and plays Ratchett with gusto. He doesn’t get to the level he was at in, say, Black Mass, but he’s comfortable as a gangster and is quite convincing. Michelle Pfeiffer continues her comeback, lighting up the screen (especially early on) as Caroline Hubbard, and Josh Gad and Ridley also make the most of the material they have to work with. In the case of the former, he gets a chance to display some range and could be a pleasant surprise for some. Ridley, in her first major film role since breaking out in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, doesn’t come across as Rey in a 1930s costume and plays her part with ease.
As indicated above, the biggest issue with Michael Green’s script is that the film is so focused on Poirot, few of the others leave an impression. Murder on the Orient Express is arguably too crowded, as several of the background figures (who are meant to be prime suspects in a crime) are barely a blip on the radar. Talents like Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe are severely underutilized, which at times can derail the narrative’s forward momentum since viewers will have trouble getting invested in everyone. Because many of the roles are thin, the conclusion the story ultimately reaches rings a tad hollow. The passengers are more plot devices than fully-formed individuals, and while there isn’t a bad performance in the film, it’s hard to call anybody a real scene-stealer.
In the end, Murder on the Orient Express is a solid Agatha Christie adaptation that’s elevated by Branagh’s directorial vision and scintillating performance as Poirot. It will not go down as one of 2017’s best films, but it’s far from the worst, and those in the mood for something charmingly old-fashioned amidst the many blockbusters should find something to enjoy here. With more attention paid to fleshing out the supporting cast, the movie had the potential to be something special, which might be somewhat disappointing for some. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining enough to recommend as a matinee for those who are fans of the book or were intrigued by marketing.
Murder on the Orient Express is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 114 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence and some thematic elements.
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