“Murder on the Orient Express,” both directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh (“Dunkirk”), is simultaneously a sleek re-mastering of a classic story and a throwback to a bygone era. Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, one of Agatha Christie’s most memorable characters, along side an all-star cast that includes Penélope Cruz (“Loving Pablo”), Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”), Judi Dench (“Victoria and Abdul”), Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”), Josh Gad (“Beauty and the Beast”), Derek Jacobi (“Cinderella”), Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”), Michelle Pfeiffer (“mother!”) and Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”). With witty dialogue, interesting characters and a mystery that is just as engrossing today as it was when Christie first wrote it, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a grand old time.
Opening in Jerusalem in 1934, the film introduces Poirot with a prologue sequence that does an adequate job of setting the stage for the puzzle solving to come, without resorting to heavy-handed exposition to explain who Poirot is and why he does what he does. From there we are quickly introduced to a wide variety of characters, some of whom will play major roles in the drama to come, some of whom will play minor roles, one of whom will shortly be killed off (prompting the mystery) and all of whom are played by A-list talent. While some audience members might find this segment of the film to move at a ridiculous pace, with little time given for the audience to acclimate themselves to each new face before being whisked to the next scene, the story moves with such a sense of joy and excitement that this table setting doesn’t come across as such so much as it comes across as a fascinating roll-call of the passengers we are about to watch.
Once the titular murder occurs and the interviews with the suspects begin, the movie never lets up. Apart from certain narrative beats relating to Poirot’s deceased wife, no revelation or twist falls flat. Poirot’s personal storyline feels half-hearted at best, but truthfully that’s not what we’re here for anyways, and the time it would’ve taken to more thoroughly develop Poirot’s back-story feels like time the film doesn’t have. There’s so much mystery to get through and so many characters with secret identities and false histories and long lost relatives to uncover that the movie doesn’t have time for the simple personal story surrounding Poirot. Because of this his final decision, meant to represent a big change for his character, feels slightly underwhelming, if only because the overall solution to the central mystery feels so satisfying in contrast.
The production design and overall look and feel of the film couldn’t be more perfectly suited for the story being told. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (“Denial”) makes creative use of the train setting to produce some seriously dynamic shots and sequences. In particular is the use of overhead shots to emphasize the “Clue”-like atmosphere that develops throughout the picture. The music by Patrick Doyle (“The Emoji Movie”) is suitably whimsical and mysterious in parts, fitting for the tone shifts that occur during the length of the feature.
“Murder on the Orient Express” might not reinvent the wheel, but it does what it does very well, providing an entertaining murder mystery with a wonderful cast who ham it up as much as they can. It’s clear that everyone involved with the picture was having a damn good time. By the time the credits roll, everyone in the audience will be too.