Nothing ruins a relaxing holiday quite like a murder. But when duty calls, Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is on the case in his never-ending quest to find order in the world. There’s a murderer afoot as a group of individuals are stuck on a snowed-in train, and only this prissy, Charles Dickens-reading detective can solve the mystery.
Director and star Kenneth Branagh did a great job crafting this delightful project for the big screen. With a screenplay from Michael Green, the writer of Blade Runner 2049, Murder on the Orient Express is a luxurious, fun-filled affair designed for people of all ages. Adapted from Agatha Christie’s classic novel, the film serves as a window into the past as a group of apparent strangers congregates for a cross-country trip on the Orient Express in 1934. Full of classical music and beautifully crafted costumes, the movie practically leaps off the screen in a flash of elegant glory. From the film’s opening scene in Jerusalem all the way up to its closing moments, Orient Express is an enjoyable, thought-provoking movie that proves no detail is irrelevant. Everything from Poirot’s excellently crafted mustache down to the dressings on the table scream authenticity and give the movie’s 20th century setting a crisp, believable feeling.
Branagh may have led the cast, but every role in the ensemble was filled by a phenomenal actor. Everyone from Josh Gad to Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe turned in sharp performances and left strong impressions with their minimal screen time. Michelle Pfeifer, still swinging after her amazing work in mother!, turns in an equally captivating performance here as the mystery unfolds for the audience. I have to give a shout out to Olivia Colman, probably best known for starring in Broadchurch, as a standout who deserves more praise and attention from American audiences. The only performance that was hard to accept was Johnny Depp’s take on Edward Ratchett. Depp is a great actor and there was nothing inherently wrong with his performance here, but it never felt like I was watching a character — I was constantly reminded that it was Johnny Depp, an annoying fact that kept pulling me out of the moment whenever he was on screen.
Branagh has proved himself a crafty director over the years capable of tackling everything from the emotional complexities of Hamlet to the bombastic world of Thor. He may have a great eye, but without his long-time collaborator Haris Zambarloukos working as Director of Photography, Murder on the Orient Express wouldn’t have looked nearly as beautiful. The film was full of some breathtaking camera work, including a five-minute Steadicam shot towards the end that gave the claustrophobic movie an energetic feel. To get around the cramped conditions of the Orient Express, the movie is full of tight camera choreography that shifts back-and-forth between swooping crane movements and bird’s eye views of characters in their cramped quarters. More often than not the camera moves with each character as they pace back-and-forth or walk around, making the camera feel like another individual taking in all the action.
While the film is an ensemble piece, the focus is put squarely on Branagh’s Poirot. There may be an enticing mystery propelling the story forward, but the main character undergoes a personal transformation throughout the movie directly related to his work. His steadfast belief that “there is right, and there is wrong, and there is nothing in between,” slowly melts away as he is faced with an increasingly gray situation that questions his moral code.
For long-time, potentially nitpicky fans of Agatha Christie’s original novel and its peculiar detective, there may be a few problems but nothing close to a deal breaker. The action scenes, if you can really even call them that, are a bit out of place for a character who prefers sitting in his chair to chasing down the perp. It was clear the team wanted to infuse a little bit of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes style, but it never feels nearly as over-the-top as that series. Anyone who wants to watch a juicy mystery unfold in front of their face in a lavish style will get a kick out of this modern twist on an old classic. Full of intrigue and genuine laughs, Murder on the Orient Express is the perfect movie to catch with your family around the holidays.