Possible spoilers ahead!
Based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is the latest screen adaptation of the famous novel. Branagh stars as famed detective Hercule Poirot, who is looking forward to taking a much deserved holiday. However, his vacation is cut short when he is summoned to London, where another case awaits him.
To get the detective to London as quickly as possible, his friend, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman), offers Poirot a seat on the Orient Express where he meets his fellow passengers, including career criminal Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Princess Dragomiroff (Judy Dench), Gerhard Hardman/Cyrus Bethman Hardman (Willem Dafoe), missionary and nurse, Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Mr. Ratchett’s secretary, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Ratchett’s valet, Edward Henry Masterman Derek Jacobi, and American widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The trip from Turkey to London should have been uneventful, but that all changed the night the train was derailed by an avalanche. This was also the night Hercule discovered one of the passengers on the train has been murdered. Deducing that one of the other guests on the train must be responsible for the crime, Poirot is tasked with uncovering the mystery before the authorities arrive.
Before I get to the film itself, I have to admit that I haven’t read the Agatha Christie novel, nor have I seen the 1974 film adaptation. But I do know of Hercule Poirot from the long running British TV series starring David Suchet. As for the 2017 Kenneth Branagh film, its strongest aspect is of course the stellar cast.
Kenneth Branagh is naturally the star of the show. He performs the part in a believable manner, but because much of the movie takes place in one setting, his performance also has a theatrical manner. One of the things I liked best about his Hercule is that Branagh gave the part several layers. For example, when he’s not working, he is more light-hearted, and outright funny in places. But when the situation calls for it, he is serious, and dramatic. You can almost see the wheels turning inside his head as he examines the evidence before him.
Next we have Jonny Depp, who shed the cartoonish roles he’s known for to play Ratchett as a realistic but unlikeable guy. I wouldn’t say this is Depp’s best work, but he is quite convincing as the despicable Ratchett. Also of note were Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley, both of who make the most of the material. Ridley in particular, showed some range as Mary Debenham. She had one of my favorite scenes with Brannah where they meet at a picnic table next to the Orient Express.
The other stand out in the cast is Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard. I’ve liked her since she played Catwoman in “Batman Returns” way back in 1992. She’s good in everything she does, but in “Murder on the Orient Express,” Pfeiffer shows just how good of an actress she really is.
Her role as Mrs. Hubbard takes Pfeiffer from damsel in distress, to femme fatale in the blink of an eye. One minute you hate her guts, and the next you are rooting for her. And just when you think you’ve seen it all from Pfeiffer, she surprises you again and again.
The film itself looks gorgeous from start to finish. “Murder on the Orient Express” easily has some of the best cinematography of last year. This is made clear from the opening scenes in Jerusalem which are just stunning to look at, to the restaurant in Turkey which I wish we could have seen more of. Even the sequence in the tunnel towards the end of the film was lit beautifully, and all of it looked and felt epic.
The only bad thing that I can say about “Murder on the Orient Express” is that the outcome to the main plot thread felt too convenient. Like I said earlier, I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if thing play out in the same manner. But I felt that with the script doing what it does, some of the characters got short-changed.
Several of the other characters are meant to be prime suspects in the crime, but they barely get anything to do. Poor Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe, only get one major scene a piece. And that’s when Poirot interrogated them. All the background information we get about them comes from Poirot, and not from Dench, Cruz, or Dafoe. This was rather disappointing, but I’m guessing some things where left in the editing room.
In the end though, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a solid film that should please Agatha Christie fans. For me, it was Kenneth Branagh’s directorial vision and superb performance as Poirot which elevated the movie even more. There’s a lot to enjoy in this film, and even though I had a couple of problems with it towards the end, I will see the sequel whenever it hits theatres. But I still want to know if his mustache is real or not
“Murder on the Orient Express” final score: B+