Murder on the Orient Express

It’s a good time to take a break from the parade of bleak dramas, testosterone-laden superhero epics and bad moms comedies and watch a good old-fashioned mystery thriller. It’s how Agatha Christie, the world’s best-selling author, would have wanted it.  She built her reputation on detective novels that endeared her to readers and firmly placed her alter ego, Detective Hercule Poirot, into the psyche of millions. Those with a foggy memory of the 1974 MOTHOE film will be pleasantly surprised by this more upscale and visually appealing version starring and directed by actor/director Kenneth Branagh.


The original novel was written in 1934. The new script by Michael Green (Logan, Alien: Covenant) takes some liberties, with subplots about racism and interracial relationships and new characters, but the heart of the story remains: Hercule Poirot (Branagh), a brilliant, intuitive Belgian detective, has never had a case he couldn’t crack: “I can only see the world as it should be. It’s useful when solving crimes.”


Poirot has just solved a misdeed that took place at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He’s tired from his last miraculous crime-solving event and for all practical purposes is taking a break. He boards a crowded train, yes that one, the Orient Express, the luxury international railway service that runs from Constantinople to Paris. The director of the train, Bouc (Tom Bateman), hastily finds the persnickety detective a second-class berth.


While on board, Poirot is approached by a shady looking American, Edward Rachett (Johnny Depp), who wants to hire the Belgian dick to find a potential assailant who is out to kill him. The two personalities clash and Poirot refuses. Later, the next morning, while the train is traversing snowy mountains, Bouc finds Rachett’s body in his berth with 12 stab wounds. He implores the brilliant directive to find the culprit. An avalanche stops the train in its tracks while Poirot investigates the possible suspects who all are riding in the same railcar. It turns out Rachett was not the man he said he was, but a possible kidnapper and murderer.


The eclectic group of passengers look both well-heeled and suspicious. There is a murderer among them. The rogue’s gallery includes: Rachett’s shifty assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad, Marshall); Rachett’s dutiful butler Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi); a lustful widow, Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Mother); the moralist missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz); a fascist Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); renowned ballet dancers and spouses Countess Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin).


Also, there’s the elderly and wealthy Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid, Hildegarde (Olivia Colman); a governess, Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who attempts to hide her affection for fellow passenger Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Broadway’s Hamilton): the conductor Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari); and a Latino mystery man, Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).  All are suspect.


Yes, this is a murder mystery.  However, it is also the most evocative rendering of a train trip since the original movie back in the ‘70s. Spend 114 minutes on this excursion and you’ll want to book a locomotive vacation. The snowy mountainous surroundings are captivating. The food and booze served on board are inviting. The motion of the railcars is soothing, like a cradle being rocked side to side. The claustrophobic setting makes everything seem intimate.


Haris Zambarloukos’ (Thor) lush cinematography looks as if it was stolen from the pages of Conde Nast Traveler. Production designer Jim Clay (Love Actually) and set decorator Rebeca Alleway make the interiors alluring. The characters are lavishly dressed courtesy of Alexandra Byrne (Oscar winner Elizabeth: The Golden Age). And, most of the time Mick Audsley’s editing keeps the pace tight, slowing for just a few moments when your mind may wonder, as if you were passing through a tunnel and coming out again.


Sidney Lumet directed the 1974 version, and urban crime dramas were his game, not costume sagas.  Branagh, who has directed films like Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Thor and Cinderella is far more suited for this genre than his predecessor. Visually, he never makes a misstep. The camera is always in the right place, or at a unique angle (overhead). He finds the climax in each scene and knows when to shut the door. He pulls universally fine performances from everyone, and any director who doesn’t let Johnny Depp chew up the scenery knows his stuff. What’s on view has a whimsical feel and a cheekiness that is never self-conscious. As the plot pieces fit together, you assemble them into a big, captivating jigsaw puzzle.


Murder on the Orient Express plays very adult. It is not likely to win over the action adventure crowd or millennials. But mature audiences looking for a classic whodunit will get their kicks. The tech elements, fine ensemble acting and the very sophisticated direction make sure that mystery fans will have a fun time guessing what’s next until the train pulls into the station. That’s the magic of Agatha Christie novels.  Entertainment and curious, clandestine shenanigans.


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