Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

A new version of Agatha Christie's mystery sports a stellar cast

Murder on the Orient Express
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
With Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Nothing hints at the long-lost era of elegance like the Orient Express, a luxury train that took several days to go from Istanbul to Paris, with connections to London.

Crime novelist Agatha Christie set her 1934 bestselling whodunit Murder on the Orient Express on the train, which is conveniently a confined space that makes any crime into a locked-room mystery with a limited number of suspects.

Kenneth Branagh stars as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and also directed the film. He plays Poirot, a master who makes the most out the tiniest clues, as someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.

He takes the same approach to the direction, paying lots of attention to minute details of costume and décor.

What stands out the most in the film is Hercule Poirot's mustache, a carefully groomed double layered affair, with curls held up by wax. It is a detail the actor-director clearly spent a lot of thought and time on.

The cast for Murder on the Orient Express can't be beat. One of the stars is obviously the murder victim and has a smaller role, but who that is won't be revealed here.

The film starts off with some humor before getting caught up in the narrow, claustrophobic train. Poirot is called on to solve a crime in Jerusalem involving a priest, a rabbi and an imam. He refers to it being like the setup of a joke, but nobody laughs.

His OCD is shown by his refusal to eat two eggs of different sizes, measuring each wit a ruler.

There are a few more amusing bits showing off lovely scenery and introducing the characters before the plot gets going.

Johnny Depp is back in good form as a dodgy businessman. He sets aside his zaniness, which has been getting tired, and does a straight acting role. Josh Gad, known for the play Book of Morman and the live-action Beauty and the Beast, is his assistant. Together they are the boorish Americans among classier people.

Judi Dench can seldom be faulted for her acting, She is Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian with little sense of humor.

Another standout among the cast is Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman, a professor who has some strong opinions about the mixing of the races.

Michelle Pfeiffer also scores points as an older woman who is on the prowl. This is her second excellent performance of the year, having made a comeback in Darren Aronofsky's Mother! Hopefully she will get some recognition for one of these roles.

Theater actor Leslie Odom Jr., who is in the hit musical Hamilton as Aaron Burr, has a breakout film role as a doctor.

The film sticks close to the book, and if you have either read the book or seen the classic 1974 version of the same story, then the whodunit aspects fall into the background, pushing the acting and cinematography forward.

There is a masterful avalanche scene, which isolates the train to allow Poirot the time to make his investigation.

As a director, Branagh does a competent job of showing clues, misguiding the audience, building suspense and developing the characters.

The film was shot using the same large-format 65mm film cameras as Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and the film on a big screen looks fantastic.

The promised humor from the opening, though, doesn't come through in the rest of the film. The result is a bit of a handsome but dry mystery — competent on all the technical points but a bit sterile and formal.

People who don't know the resolution to the mystery are likely to enjoy it more than those who do, as it is quite a surprise and to this day a unique plot twist.

The 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet earned six Oscar nominations, with Ingrid Bergman winning for Best Supporting Actress.

The new version looks likely to get a few nods as well, as this sort of glossy costume drama is catnip for the Oscars and Golden Globes.

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