Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in this strong remake of the 1974 film
“Murder on the Orient Express” is as old-fashioned as train travel itself.
This remake of the 1974 film, adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, is a handsome looking, patient and ultimately satisfying murder mystery that doesn’t gussy itself up for modern crowds and unfurls at its own unhurried pace.
It’s got plenty of star power to draw you in. Kenneth Branagh directs and stars, and among the passengers along for the fateful ride are Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe and new kid on the block Daisy Ridley, in her first major non-“Star Wars” role.
Branagh plays famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, whose distinctive mustache — which looks like two opposing ocean waves as painted by Van Gogh — is as meticulous as he is. Early scenes paint him as notoriously detail-obsessed, measuring the size of two eggs to make sure they’re the same size before cracking them open for breakfast.
Having just solved another big case, Poirot is looking to hang up his detective’s hat, albeit momentarily, as he boards the Orient Express for a several-day journey across Europe. He doesn’t get the chance. He’s cornered on board by Edward Ratchett (Depp, convincingly playing smarmy), a sleaze who rips people off selling counterfeit wares. Ratchett knows people are coming after him and attempts to hire Poirot to protect him. The noble Poirot declines.
“I don’t like your face,” he tells Ratchett, part of a delicious exchange between the two characters.
Ratchett is right, his time is running out. When he winds up murdered, stabbed to death while sleeping in his cabin, Poirot is called upon to solve the mystery. And he’s got plenty of time on his hands to sift through clues and interview witnesses, as the train is derailed by an avalanche and help is several hundred miles away.
Everyone’s a suspect, and “Orient Express” unfolds like “Clue” on a train. Was it Caroline Hubbard (Pfeiffer), who’s always on the hunt for her next ex-husband, after being turned off by her brief encounter with Ratchett? Or was it Hector MacQueen (Gad), Ratchett’s assistant, upset that their partnership is heading south?
Branagh, working from a script by Michael Green (who also had a hand in this year’s “Logan” and “Blade Runner 2049” screenplays), revels in the 1930s period detail and creates a lavish mood to match. He introduces the bulk of his cast during an extended train-length tracking shot that cleverly weaves in all of his players, first in the station and then on board the Orient Express.
Once on the train, Branagh brings viewers up and down its long corridors, and hangs above the cabins in several De Palma-esque overhead shots. The train’s derailment allows him to shoot exteriors in the snowy mountainscape, even if many of those shots appear to be on green screen.
Movies like this tend to hang on the resolution of the central mystery, and “Orient Express” comes to as purposeful a conclusion as it could hope. In doing so, it turns the story not into a whodunnit as much as its a study of Poirot, and Branagh’s reverence for the character shines through. Branagh loves this character, you can see it in his eyes. By the end he’s being tipped off to the case that becomes “Death on the Nile,” and this treatment of Poirot is absolutely worthy of a follow-up.
A lot of remakes of Hollywood classics trip over themselves to appeal to modern day crowds, but Branagh is a classicist at heart. In front of and behind the camera, he makes this journey a throwback ride worth taking. All aboard.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’
Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Running time: 114 minutes