Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Mchelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Johnny Depp
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Once you’ve seen Murder on the Orient Express once, you could be forgiven for never wanting to watch it again. After all, when you know who’s done it in a whodunnit, what’s the point? But Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of a novel that’s now 84 years old knows just where to detect new depths.
Enter Hercule Poirot, a character even more well-known than Orient Express’ ending. Brought to life by Peter Ustinov and, perhaps definitively, by David Suchet, the character’s past incarnations are an even tougher act to follow than the railway mystery itself. Suchet’s Poirot found fire and fury at the immoral nature of humanity in his own chilling Orient adaptation, something that marked ITV’s TV movie out from the pack. Branagh’s Poirot, by comparison, is a much lighter presence, and his frustrations stem from the notion that the world should be in a certain order, with every inch that’s out of line paining his very soul.
He surrounds himself with the most A-List cast this side of The Avengers, from the uptight Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her put-upon assistant (Olivia Colman) to the wounded Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and smart governess Miss Debenham (a scene-stealing Daisy Ridley). Johnny Depp’s presence will deter some, but there’s consolation to be found in the fact that his dodgy American businessman is destined to provide Poirot with the titular murder. So who done it? The time was when the famous guest star would be the obvious culprit, but there’s no risk of that here, and the ensemble respond appropriately; they all have great fun going hell-for-leather with their familiar character types, each one trying to be suspicious or secretive enough to be a suspect.
Michael Green’s script is smart enough to play the whole thing straight, only calling out the outdated details from the period novel and leaving the rest of the crime story intact. Some flashbacks inserted into heated conversions near the end help to keep the pace up, even as the train stalls in the snow – giving Branagh a chance to take in the sweeping, chilling landscape.
A brief on-foot chase on a bridge might feel a tad contrived, but the writer behind Logan, Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 understands that there’s no need for blockbuster action here: the whole thing is one set piece, and the excitement comes from seeing it conducted with delicate gymnastics by the Thor helmer. There’s a gentle thrill in the way he tracks his camera down the length of the entire train, introducing each character with impressive efficiency, or the overhead shot used to discover the all-important corpse, which recalls the old-fashioned fun of Cluedo.
And, between all the style and star-studded dramatics, Branagh teases out an enjoyably different side to Agatha Christie’s sleuth, introduced during a witty prologue. A heavy thinker (with his precious little grey cells), Hercule’s obsessive-compulsive streak powers his need to solve crimes as well as his need to have a correctly proportioned breakfast – murder puts the universe out of joint, something that troubles him just as much as it frustrates him by interrupting his need for a holiday without such concerns. Sporting an absurdly oversized moustache, it’s testament to Sir Ken’s charismatic performance that we can take this sympathetic, kind-hearted figure seriously – and the prospect of him returning for Death on the Nile is as pleasing as this comfortingly old-fashioned piece of cinema. Chugging along with a knowing nostalgia, Murder on the Orient Express is an entertaining reminder that there are still fresh surprises to be found in Christie’s most famous tale – not in the crime, but in the person solving it.