“Murder on the Orient Express” is a lavish and stylish take on Agatha Christie’s 1934 classic mystery.
It’s a meticulous and colorful production in every meaningful sense, from its breathtaking photography and beautiful production design to the range of personalities making up its cast of characters.
There are some logistical and pacing challenges the film fails to overcome simply due to its relatively faithful adaptation of its source material. But there’s still lots to enjoy here, especially for fans of mysteries, of the talent involved, and of Christie’s most beloved of characters, Hercule Poirot.
What’s it about?
Fresh off solving yet another seemingly impossible case in Jerusalem, Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the great detective known around the world as much for his moustache as for his crime-solving skills, declares he’s in need of a holiday.
He calls up on his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), the director of business for the Orient Express luxury train, to arrange passage, and so joins its passengers in what’s meant to be a relaxing and opulent journey from Istanbul through Yugoslavia, Italy, Switzerland, France and finally London.
Those passengers include an “art dealer,” (Johnny Depp) and his secretary and butler (Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi, respectively), a missionary (Penelope Cruz), a widow on the prowl for next husband (Michelle Pfeiffer), a professor (Willem Dafoe), a doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a governess (Daisy Ridley), a car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Russian princess and her maid (Judi Dench and Olivia Coleman, respectively), and a reclusive Count and Countess (Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton).
An avalanche derails and traps the train one night as it makes its way through the Dinaric Alps. Shortly after, one of the passengers is discovered murdered.
As they wait for help to arrive to extricate the train, Poirot accepts the task of determining the identity of the murderer. As he soon discovers, everyone on the train has something to hide, everyone is suspect, and the more he discovers, the less the crime seems to make sense, even in the face of his unparalleled observational skills.
A feast for the eyes
Arguably the most striking feature of this new “Murder on the Orient Express” is its photography and production design. Color and detail are as rich and immersive as any period film in recent memory, partly due to the use of 65mm cameras in the production, the same size film stock used to film this year’s acclaimed “Dunkirk” and, over two decades ago, Branagh’s three-hour-plus adaptation of “Hamlet.”
Branagh, who as he often does takes on acting in and directing the film, utilizes those cameras in as many types of shots as possible to keep the confines of the train’s cabins, as well-appointed as they are, from become stale environments. Every cabin, every space in the train is utilized in some way to keep scenes from becoming stagnant, as can sometimes happen when the action in a story is limited to a set of spaces.
His efforts aren’t entirely successful. There are just too many characters to give screen time, and too much ground to cover in the mystery plot, for camera work alone to overcome the sense of a lack of motion to the proceedings. It’s not an especially long movie at an hour and 54 minutes, but it does feel longer.
Another thing this new “Murder” does well is utilize the immense collection of talent in its cast, providing each performer opportunities to shine at different points. This is a more emotion-driven take on Christie’s story than in past iterations, which provides each performer a chance to really dig into their motivations and back stories to bring to life rich characterizations.
Admittedly, some of these roles are showier and more over-the-top than others, none more so than Poirot, who Branagh portrays as a kind but undeniably quirky and meticulous man who simply cannot turn off his eye for inconsistencies, imperfections and imbalance. As he confides to another character early in the film, the quality makes most of his life a torment, but also helps him to be very good at his job, and Branagh injects a feeling of that irony into Poirot’s every gesture and expression.
Aside from Branagh, other members of the ensemble that especially shine include fellow Royal Shakespeare Company alums Dench and Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, and Pfeiffer. Oddly enough, if there’s a flat or uninspired performance to be found here at all, it’s Depp’s, whose take on his character just comes off as canned and forced.
For fans of the novel and of the beloved 1974 film version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” this version packs plenty to enjoy just in the comparison of how the story is brought to life. Great pains and effort to maintain the original’s story’s spirit and soul are clear in the little details, right down to Poirot’s magnificent moustache.
For audiences unfamiliar with the source material or previous films, there’s still lots to enjoy, especially on the big screen where all that gorgeous photography can be best experienced. Should you decide to take a ride on this particular “Express”, don’t expect a fast-paced race to get to your destination.
Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the journey, the way travelers used to when trains like the Orient Express were the class of world travel.
Murder on the Orient Express
Starring Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Kenneth Branagh, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Derek Jacobi, Marwan Kenzari, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Sergei Polunin, Daisy Ridley. Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.