Murder on the Orient Express
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Michael Green
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Ododm Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
My uncle once told me that when a movie features a ‘cast of 1000’s’, it typically wouldn’t be very good. This was based on the all-star murder mysteries that permeated tele-movies and theatrical movies of the mid-1970’s where a bevy of big named players would endure a small movie in order to build their credibility as actors. Sydney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express from 1974 was one such movie. However, audiences ate it up. Sadly, I haven’t seen it. However, as we explore Kenneth Branagh’s reimagining of the Agatha Christie mystery of the same name, I went in with a fresh pair of eyes and no expectations.
In the lead role of the Belgian detective, Hercules Poirot is Branagh. As the film opens, we learn intimate details about what would today be identified as obsessive compulsive disorder, but as he reminds us early in the story that life is real and murder is out of the ordinary. After solving one last crime, Poirot looks forward to some respite when he is called back into service on the Orient Express bound for France.
As with the aforementioned ‘cast of 1000’s’ comment, Branagh’s Orient Express features a strong cast of big names and up-and-comers. Front and center is Johnny Depp as Samuel Ratchett, an antiquities dealer looking for protection. Willem Dafoe plays Professor Gerhard Hardman, an Austrian professor trying to get to a conference. Penelope Cruz plays Pilar, a sultry au pair with more on her mind than meets the eye. In the plum role of Princess Dragomiroff is Dame Judi Dench, who manages to steal the show without even batting an eyelid. Josh Gad stepped out of his comfort zone as Hector MacQueen, someone who imbibes a bit more than he should. Michelle Pfeiffer surprises as Caroline Hubbard while Daisy Ridley demonstrates that she can wield more than a lightsaber as Mary Debenham. Tom Bateman plays Bouc, the director of the Orient Express and Poirot’s friend.
Mr. Branagh shot the film in such a way that the investigative conversations felt like we were watching a stage play while the special effects made the film feel as grand and as opulent as the train’s namesake. Much like Poirot, Mr. Branagh had a purpose for every shot, and there is an economy in the choices he made. The script, written by Michael Green based on Agatha Christie’s classic novel creates the openness while balancing against the intimacy of the setting. Patrick Doyle’s piano-based score enhances the opulence, the openness and the intimacy that Mr. Branagh aimed to achieve. This is a rare film amongst the special effects laden films we get where something explodes every five minutes. Here, the biggest effect is an avalanche caused by a lightning strike.
The rarity also works against the film. Mr. Branagh makes sure to frame himself, minimizing the supporting characters, especially once they were eliminated as suspects. They each have their moment, yet as the clues mounted up, you begin to realize what the story is about. I struggled with Mr. Bateman’s Bouc, who was extremely helpful in the early stages of the film, even offering some levity to Mr. Poirot’s indulgent nature. As the story wrapped up, he became less and less important.
I won’t share what questions I had because that would give the film away. However, the visual effects and the opulence that Mr. Branagh delivers makes the film worth seeing on as big a screen as possible.
2.5 out of 4 stars