Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

From English director Kenneth Branagh, who has helmed everything from Shakespearean plays adapted to film to gods of thunder sparking from the pages of comic-books, comes his latest jump from page to screen with Murder on the Orient Express. Adapted from the classic murder mystery from author Agatha Christie, the iconic tale of whodunit comes to vivid life in Branagh's captivating caper. With a cast to die for, and a visual palette that showcased its director's craft, while Murder might not add much to an already entrancing premise of deceit and murder, it managed to cook up an effectively old-fashioned thriller to snack on this season.

Embarking on a lavish trip across Europe aboard the Orient Express, master detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is in dire need of a long-awaited holiday from his profession of solving crime. Seeking to restrain himself from falling into the affairs of his fellow passengers, including that of an allusive widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), a shady assistant (Josh Gad), and a seductive governess (Daisy Ridley), Poirot distances himself from the other occupants the best he can. His quiet holiday is quickly thrown to the wind after one of the passengers is found dead, stabbed violently in the night without remorse. Reluctantly leaping onto the case as hysteria steadily fills the train, Poirot is drawn into a game of lies and misdirection as the mysterious facades of each passenger begin to crumble.

While massive blockbusters like Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok were already set to blow away the month of November, another project that managed to grapple my attention was the old-fashioned mystery of Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express. While its cast already looked as divine as it could be, promising what appeared to be a solid role for Johnny Depp free of any pasty white make-up and a peek inside Daisy Ridley's work outside of Star Wars, it was the intriguing new take on the 1934 Agatha Christie novel that drew me to the film. Retaining a sense of exaggerated theatrics that come with any classic whodunit mystery, the film looked to inject the book's criminal premise into an awe-inspiring backdrop of snow-capped mountains and luxury train cars. With a viable cast at its fingertips as well, the newest version of Murder to hit the screen used its compelling visuals to sustain a promising murder mystery.

Aside from the film's expensive cast, the first thing that struck me as I watched Murder on the Orient Express was its equally-expensive production value. Kicking off its introduction to master P.I. Hercule Poirot in a cold open set against the vast reaches of 1930s Jerusalem, we were immediately treated to a plot that spanned beyond the confines of a luxury locomotive. With Poirot's keen abilities in deducing crime thwarting a jewel robbery, the audience was quickly taken not only into the obsessive compulsive psyche of the Belgian detective, but also the mysterious streets of a foreign yet expansive land. While much of the film's expenses of course went into creating a decadent setting for murder aboard the Orient Express, the production of the film also touched on the cruel and unsuspecting world that lie just outside.

Settling aboard the locomotive at the center of this murder mystery in due time, it was through the eyes of Branagh's charming Poirot that we met the other occupants charting a course towards danger and destruction. As Poirot's sparky acquaintance in Tom Bateman's Bouc brought him aboard the train, we were instantly clued into the shady characters who sleep in the compartments just steps from that of Poirot. Heading off the cast was the ever-suave Johnny Depp, who concocted a slithering performance that mixed well with Branagh's blunt but sincere take as Poirot. Also there, were the likes of Daisy Ridley, Dame Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., and Penelope Cruz. Each slipping into their respective roles with a fashionable ounce of bitterness and allure, the cast at the center of Murder meshed well to produce an elegant and flavorful whodunit tale.

Overall, while Kenneth Branagh's update of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express might not bridge that large a gap from its previous adaptations, keeping its premise tight and its mystery pristine, the film delivered a satisfying, old-fashioned caper set against an expansive realm of unexpected consequence. With a cast that sold their parts the best they could without devolving into simple caricatures, Murder on the Orient Express chugged along at its own pace and served up a worthy dish for the end of the fall season.

I gave Murder on the Orient Express a 7 out of 10 for its star-studded cast, each of whom played their part in this stirring game of intrigue, and its classical production value, which sent up the aesthetics of the time while also teasing the audience of a world of treachery just beyond the chilling facade of the Orient Express.  

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