‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is star-studded, visually dazzling whodunit

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Kenneth Branagh stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

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Grade: 3.5/5

Agatha Christie’s 1934 classic, “Murder on the Orient Express,” has enchanted readers and film audiences alike for decades. The tale of esteemed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and his quest to solve a homicide case aboard a train has been adapted for the screen on multiple occasions — including the Academy-award winning 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet. With that in mind, there was little doubt that high expectations awaited director Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of the iconic literary piece.

Thankfully, Branagh not only creatively re-explores the source material, but builds an acute sense of wonder and nostalgia within its 1930s European landscape, transporting viewers into the snowy mountains of Istanbul with ease. The tried-and-true murder mystery, an intricate literary achievement in its own right, doesn’t translate as effectively onto the screen, but the vibrant performances and sheer visual charm of “Murder on the Orient Express” still make the film a thoroughly engrossing experience.

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is the quintessential sleuth with a heart of gold, who, in between cases, boards the Orient Express for a brief personal vacation. His relaxing trip, however, is quickly cut short when one of the passengers — Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, in a frustratingly-cast cameo following his recent fall from public grace), a tycoon with questionable intentions — is brutally murdered. Poirot sets out on a mission to identify the culprit, interrogating each passenger and piecing together details of the terrifying occurrence — while uncovering darker secrets behind the case’s ties to another devastating off-board tragedy.

The screenplay — a devoted adaptation of Christie’s work — is literary to a fault. While true to the original novel, the film relies too much on audience’s familiarity with Christie’s work and often falls short in clear exploration of plotlines. Rather than explored in-depth, many storylines and elements in the film are simply left for viewers to interpret on their own.

At just under two hours, the film is brisk, keeping the audience engaged throughout the introductory sequences and well into the central action. But while the short run time never lets the film fall into boredom, it also rarely allows for complete character development — besides the central Poirot, the film’s many characters are simply skimmed over as caricatures in a larger, convoluted plot.

But the cast — filled with familiar faces — manages to put forth several effective, idiosyncratic performances with little time. Josh Gad as Ratchett’s remorseful assistant Hector MacQueen is particularly memorable in his few scenes, capturing his character’s balancing act between panic and suspicion. Michelle Pfeiffer, meanwhile, is magnetic as the elegant and insidious older widow, Mrs. Hubbard, transitioning from the quiet scene-stealer to the performer responsible for the film’s most powerful moments.

But ultimately, the film’s strongest performance is its central one, as Branagh inhabits Poirot’s iconic eccentricity without ever turning him into a cartoon. His curled mustache and trademark affectation derived from former incarnations of Poirot, Branagh distinguishes his performance through his acute humanization of the detective. Whereas previous portrayals relied on the Poirot’s literary quirks and distinct mannerisms to convey his relationship to the narrative, Branagh’s Poirot is simply a well-intentioned man who is a victim of his own moral and professional dilemmas — rendering the typically outlandish detective a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist.

In addition to the film’s numerous captivating performances, “Orient Express” benefits from its magnificent visual appeal. Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos — who shot “Orient Express” using the last few 65mm cameras in the world — capture the tension between characters from various angles within the train, as well as the grand scope of the railway on scenic mountains. The film’s lavish set and costume design engage viewers in the nostalgic atmosphere, further contributing to their sense of firsthand involvement in the action.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is a creative — albeit rushed — interpretation of a literary classic. We’ve seen the story brought to life on screen before, but spearheaded by Branagh, it serves as a thoroughly original and uniquely enjoyable display of performance and visual artistry.

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].