No doubt mirroring our own unrest, modern whodunnits have taken a decidedly darker turn in novels and their film adaptations. Murder and misdeeds are more salacious, cruel, and unusual, certainly in the murderer's motivations, which can be anything from icy indifference to a childhood flash point that sends them down a homicidal path.
By that measure, the new adaptation of Agatha Christie's classic 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express seems out of fashion with today. There's no angst or troubled protagonist who may or may not be the killer. It's much simpler and old-fashioned than that; a dressed-up and downright polite story of guesswork and suspense involving a homicide aboard a luxurious passenger train.
There are more than a dozen suspects, and the world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (director Kenneth Branagh), himself a passenger, must use all of his considerable skills of perception and intellect to find the murderer before the train, temporarily derailed in the mountains by a winter storm, reaches its destination.
Screenplay adapted by Michael Green from the novel by Agatha Christie. A 20th Century Fox release playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, Bowling Green, and Mall of Monroe. Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. Running time: 114 minutes.
Critic's rating: ★★★
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Willem Dafoe.
He doesn’t have much to work with: The crime scene is a blue corpse, stabbed repeatedly in the early morning in the passenger’s cabin, an open window to let in the frigid air, a few planted clues in the room, and one that’s discreet and imperceptible to all but the keenest mind.
The mystery is on and so is the fun in this Clue-like whodunnit featuring a baker's dozen of memorable characters with motives and ties to the crime.
For those unfamiliar with Christie's work, Murder on the Orient Express isn’t A-to-B linear, but multilayered. Solving the case tasks Poirot, something to which he is not accustomed.
One of literature’s most popular crime-solving sleuths, having appeared in dozens and dozens of Christie's works (novels and short stories) as well as film, TV, theater, and radio dramas, Poirot is not only the star of this adaptation but also its most interesting character. Witty, brilliant, eccentric, and always right, the detective could easily be insufferable.
Branagh’s performance, though, keeps the character relatable and even vulnerable, including a revelation that Poirot’s remarkable powers of observation are a byproduct of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. (He measures the height of boiled eggs, for example, and is bothered by bow ties that aren't perfectly straight.)
The size of the cast is like a Love Boat episode, only with Oscar-winning and -nominated actors in the part of strangers on a voyage that goes awry, and each with a secret or two.
Among them: interracial couple Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who seek a place of acceptance for their relationship.
Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an unsavory businessman with mob ties who is receiving anonymous threatening letters. In Ratchett's employ are personal assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi).
There’s Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), who has a fiery temper, and his wife, Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), who lives in the shadows; Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), who is also overtly racist, particularly to Mary and Dr. Arbuthnot; and Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is a fun-seeking widow who seems to be more than a match for any man.
Rounding out the unusual suspects are Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), a Spanish missionary and nurse, and successful car salesman Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
The number of characters makes it difficult to keep up with the amount of backstories and names. This is one of those films where first impressions matter; if you don't connect with a character right away, they become background chatter, even during close-ups. Fortunately, this is a capable group of actors who know how to make a first impression, particularly Pfeiffer, who has the best lines, Dafoe, who has the most interesting character, Odom, who has terrific screen charisma, and Gad, who has the most empathic role.
It's also nice to see Depp playing small-ish and understated on the big screen — at least by Depp standards; it still features heavy makeup and an accent — and unlikable. Ratchett is a cathartic character for audiences and, one suspects, for Depp.
Murder on the Orient Express is best at its ends: Poirot's introduction in Syria and meeting the passengers before and shortly after they board the train, and as Poirot furiously uncovers the crime. The end result, perhaps shocking at the time of the novel’s publication, now seems rather formulaic. It doesn't help that it comes across as rushed and clunky.
Even when the plot and pacing slow considerably in the middle of Murder on the Orient Express, during what’s mainly busy work for the detective, Branagh as Poirot still makes this train trip worthwhile.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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