Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Clues and suspects abound in a murder aboard the elegant train, puzzling famed detective Hercule Poirot. Plush adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel.
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As comfortable as an easy chair in front of a warm fire, Murder on the Orient Express uses Agatha Christie's 1934 novel to fashion a bonbon of escapism, “Masterpiece Theatre”-style. With its large cast of familiar faces and mildly challenging plot, the movie skews to older, upscale viewers who probably prefer streaming to cinemagoing.

Adapted for TV in 2001 and 2010, the novel was also the basis for Sidney Lumet's star-studded 1974 feature, which earned an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman. Like that film, the cast in this version is an eccentric mix of award winners, starlets and relative unknowns, lorded over by director Kenneth Branagh in a idiosyncratic turn as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

Michael Green's screenplay opens up the story considerably, adding a Middle Eastern prologue that positions the heretofore portly and diminutive detective as something of an action hero. And when Poirot accidentally steps into what looks like camel dung, Branagh indicates just how low he's willing to go for cheap laughs.

Fortunately, once the cast assembles on the luxurious train, the movie settles into Christie's plot, a deconstruction of a cycle of locked-door mysteries that enthralled readers 80 years ago. There's an odious villain (played with surpassing skill by Johnny Depp), tight-lipped passengers with hidden pasts and secret relationships, and Poirot, fussing over his three-minute eggs and moustache brush.

Christie's characters cover a broad social spectrum: European aristocrats, valets, secretaries, doctors, soldiers, even an Aryan supremacist. Depp is oily gangster Samuel Ratchett, peddling fake antiques and in need of bodyguards as a result. "I'm an art dealer, but I'm new to it," he explains. Poirot declines to help in one of the movie's better scenes.

Also onboard: Mrs. Hubbard (cinema treasure Michelle Pfeiffer), a man-hungry American divorcée and the only character in sensible shoes; MacQueen (Josh Gad), Ratchett's secretary; Natalie Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), a Russian princess; Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a surgeon and military veteran; governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); Pilar (Penélope Cruz), who calls herself a missionary; an Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe); and others who will be revealed as drunks, drug addicts and worse.

A mutilated corpse turns up after a night in which Poirot's sleep is disturbed by odd occurrences, all of which come into play later. So does a very Lindbergh-esque kidnapping some years earlier. Poirot spends the rest of the movie interrogating suspects, both singly and in groups, and unearthing clues, which pop up everywhere. It's a measure of Christie's skill that even the worn-out tropes here still entertain.

Branagh's performance is as loud and fussy as his direction. His Poirot is all surface details. He pays more attention to the detective's clothes and accent (famously difficult) than his personality. As director, he stages splashy, large-scale action scenes that don't make much sense, and throws in details that are obviously fake, like the throngs of peasants who wave at the departing Express from rooftops. (Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot in 70mm, adding depth to the movie's period details.)

This is a culturally aware version of Christie, with nods to politics, sex and race impermissible during the author's time. But the movie works best when it sticks closest to the novel. (Branagh too—his interrogation scenes are wonderful showcases for the stars.) Despite its dated sensibilities, and Branagh's awkward updates, Murder on the Orient Express remains a lulling, cushiony pleasure.

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