Murder on the Orient Express is the second theatrical feature based on the well-known Agatha Christie novel (there have been two TV adaptations as well) and stars Kenneth Branagh, who also directs, as Christie’s famed fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The movie, shot on 65mm film, is both a faithful adaptation of the novel and an homage to a grander, old-fashioned style of Hollywood moviemaking — which has both its charms and its drawbacks. But the former outweigh the latter just enough to make this version of Christie’s trainbound whodunnit entertaining and even somewhat profound, although some modern audiences may get restless or find the unfolding story hard to believe.
It’s 1934, and we meet Poirot in Palestine, where he solves a local crime and decides it’s time for a holiday. But his plans are curtailed by an urgent request to come back to London and continue work on another case, which requires him to book passage on the Orient Express with the help of the rail company’s director Bouc (Tom Bateman), who boards along with Poirot. Joining them are a dozen other passengers of varying ages, nationalities and temperaments, with Poirot immediately finding a shady, gangster-like character named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) suspicious and disagreeable.
The journey is barely underway when two events occur: someone is murdered in their sleeping car and the train is temporarily trapped by snow on the tracks. Bouc, fearing a scandal, implores Poirot to solve the murder before the authorities arrive, a challenge that the detective accepts. But as Poirot begins to examine the evidence and interview the other occupants of the train, he discovers that the killing may be related to a notorious case from several years earlier, and that every one of the passengers may have a connection to or a motive themselves for the crime.
Fans of the book will remember how all this turns out, and frankly non-readers may eventually figure it out too (this writer never read the novel or saw the 1974 film, but deduced the solution). Yet even though Christie’s original puzzle and resolution may seem dated and even more implausible now than some critics suggested 83 years ago when the novel was first published, there is something captivating and engrossing about watching Poirot carefully and patiently go about his business, which consists largely of listening and watching. It helps that Branagh is outstanding in the role: eccentric, dryly funny and arrogant, yet brimming with a keen, unquestionable intelligence and righteous sense of justice, his Poirot is effortlessly watchable (and wears a moustache for the ages).
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