Review by C.J. Bunce
Many have asked: Why make another Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express? You could just as easily ask: Why adapt another Shakespeare play? Or Why make another Sherlock Holmes series? When your story is great, and becomes as classic as Agatha Christie’s famous, timeless 1934 novel, it’s sort of the point of cinema, isn’t it? From an actor standpoint, being in one of the film versions of Murder on the Orient Express, and portraying such iconic roles, is something like being cast as King Lear. And who better than Kenneth Branagh to inject his own vision of the story into a new snapshot of acting greats for a new era of audience members? Of Branagh’s twenty directorial pursuits, you must go back to the early era of Dead Again and Peter’s Friends to find Branagh not serving as puppetmaster of someone else’s well-known world, whether it’s Shakespeare in Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet (and the list goes on), or adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Marvel Comics’ Thor, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Branagh is the king of directing adaptations and remakes. Add Murder on the Orient Express to that list, a faithful adaptation of the book, stylishly filmed with lavish, sweeping sets and landscapes courtesy of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Branagh’s choice cameraman on four of his past films.
The year’s casting award goes to Lucy Bevan for bring filmgoers back to the age of the all-star cast, where you’d look to 1970s disaster movies (Airport ’76, Towering Inferno, Earthquake) or the odd comedy (think It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) for a pantheon of stars like that found in Orient Express. Branagh as Hercule Poirot sports that classic era moustache with confidence (Christie herself called Poirot’s moustache “magnificent” and “immense”) and he adds his own quirks and humor to Christie’s legendary greatest detective, providing a new twist on the Holmes/Monk/House, M.D. frustrated genius detective archetype. So many of the cast members appear every bit like Golden Age film stars here, including Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, and Leslie Odom, Jr., with a particularly engaging performance by Tom Bateman as Poirot’s friend Bouc, in what will no doubt be seen as a great breakout role for the actor.
The film will be best for those unfamiliar with the story. A famous detective receives a message requiring him to squeeze onto a full train at the last minute with a little more than a dozen passengers aboard. When one passenger who fears for his life and requests assistance from the detective winds up dead in a brutal, bloody murder, the whodunit begins. Once a snowy avalanche blocks the path of the train, the game is afoot as the delay provides enough time for Detective Poirot to begin interviewing the passengers. The mystery is laid out with several clues, including just enough to allow the viewer to figure out who killed the victim if he/she is paying close attention. And Branagh stages the investigation like a game of Clue/Cluedo–including overhead angles that at times make the viewer feel like Murder on the Orient Express is indeed a virtual reality version of the board game. We know the murder weapons and the location, but who is responsible for the death and why?
Ten times Branagh has directed himself on film, and these roles and his dozens of other major roles continue to prove how engaging and versatile he is as a performer. Depp continues to expand his catalog of varied roles as the greatest actor of his generation, here conjuring Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart as a suave and self-possessed businessman. Michelle Pfeiffer delivers what may be her best performance of all, as does Willem Dafoe as a multi-layered passenger. And Daisy Ridley shows her potential as a star with a long, promising career ahead. Race becomes a relevant topic to the investigation in this new screen story, and Branagh should be commended for diversifying the story a bit, swapping in Leslie Odom, Jr., Penélope Cruz, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo for traditionally Anglo roles.
The opening ten minutes is pristine, an introduction to Branagh’s Poirot that telegraphs what we can expect from this both classic and newly-minted update to a well-known master sleuth. The resolution and reveal is satisfying, as is each step of the way. Depending on the attitude’s of next year’s Academy, add Murder on the Orient Express to the list of Oscar contenders. This would be an easy decision were there a “best ensemble” Oscar. Long-time Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle hits all the right notes with his musical score, and Branagh wrote a song sung by Pfeiffer in the closing credits, which could also yield a nomination for each. I also must give a high-five for the chutzpah of Branagh to indulge himself with an homage to Leonardo da Vinci toward the film’s end. And Branagh’s use of windows with shifting glares and reflections adds a stunning Edward Hopper feel to many scenes.
A true movie lover’s movie, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is in theaters now. The possibility of a sequel is hinted at in the film, so hopefully audiences will approve this one at the box office so we have a chance to see what Branagh has up his sleeve for us next.