It’s been 43 years since the release of Sidney Lumet’s star-studded adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express – not to mention more than 80 years since the publication of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel – and director Kenneth Branagh is thrusting the tale back onto the big screen, with an ensemble cast no less impressive than that of the 1974 film. Branagh himself headlines the affair, a visually stunning period piece full of sparkling sets and opulent costumes, all of which are outshined by perhaps the most magnificent mustache in cinematic history.
After the resolution of his latest case, conveyed via a delightfully energetic opening sequence, world-renown detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is ready for some much-deserved relaxation. “I want to look at paintings and have too much time on my hands,” he confesses in his thick French accent. An old colleague (Tom Bateman) secures passage for Poirot aboard the Orient Express, a luxury train departing from Istanbul which seems like the perfect beginning for the master sleuth’s vacation.
Alas, Poirot’s respite is not to be: a shady art dealer by the name of Ratchett (Johnny Depp) attempts to hire him as a bodyguard of sorts for the duration of the trip, an offer which Poirot refuses. “I don’t like your face,” he says matter-of-factly, as if this explanation is sufficient. When an avalanche derails the train in the middle of the night, a conductor discovers that Ratchett has been murdered, stabbed to death in his compartment. The scene of the crime is littered with clues, each seemingly pointing to a different suspect, and Poirot is forced to call upon his superior intellect to determine which of the remaining passengers is responsible for the ghastly crime.
The suspects are nearly as diverse as the actors portraying them: Star Wars heroine Daisy Ridley showcases her dramatic chops as governess Mary Debenham; Hamilton breakout Leslie Odom Jr. is a well-spoken doctor returning to London who runs afoul of an Austrian scientist (Willem Dafoe) unable to see past the color of his skin; Dame Judi Dench shows up as a cranky, sour-faced Russian princess, and Michelle Pfeiffer turns in the film’s most emotional performance as a widow with a fondness for wine and handsome men. The remaining cast is rounded out by the likes of Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Derek Jacobi, just to name a few.
Hiding somewhere among these characters is the perpetrator, and Branagh savors the opportunity to devour scenery as Poirot examines the evidence and interrogates the passengers. There’s never a moment where Branagh and his spectacular facial hair aren’t fun to watch – which helps to balance the scales, as the actual “mystery” of the film leaves much to be desired. The revelation of each new clue is followed almost immediately be a lengthy explanation from Poirot – often relying on obscure bits of knowledge from his travels – about its significance, leaving no opportunity for the audience to ponder the information or formulate theories of their own. The inevitable confrontation with the culprit hardly comes as a surprise, as the film leaves almost no room for speculation, but the climactic moments are wonderfully staged, with Branagh turning the dial all the way up and several of his castmates matching him beat for beat.
With its distinct lack of superheroes, explosions or R-rated humor, Murder on the Orient Express feels something like a time-worn relic of an age where filmmaking was much simpler, when a strong ensemble cast was more than enough to compel audiences to buy a ticket. Whether or not this retelling of Christie’s iconic whodunit resonates with modern audiences is anyone’s guess, but viewers who embark on this excursion are apt to find a sublimely enjoyable journey.