7.5 out of 10
Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot
Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham
Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot
Tom Bateman as Bouc
Gerard Horan as Aynesworth
Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Biniamino Marquez
Penélope Cruz as Pilar Estravados
Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen
Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett
Derek Jacob as Edward Henry Masterman
Sergei Polunin as Count Rudolph Andrenyi
Lucy Boynton as Countess Elena Andrenyi
Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard
Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff
Olivia Colman as Hildegarde Schmidt
Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
After seeing Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, it is clear that Branagh’s favorite director is… er, Kenneth Branagh. He is very much the centerpiece of this star-studded cast, and the camera looks at him like he’s the main course at an elegant, sumptuous meal. After his supporting turn in Dunkirk earlier this year, Branagh is the lead here, and historically Branagh has always surrounded himself with strong casts in his films. But make no mistake, this is his film, through and through. While the cast is rich and varied, they are all secondary to Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian literary detective, who cannot stand disorder and chaos, and must struggle to find the answers, if for nothing else than to bring his world into balance.
And, if Branagh were a less accomplished director, this solipsistic approach would be cloying and unbearable, but Murder on the Orient Express is anything but. Poirot is, himself, a very self-centered, narcissistic person, and so Branagh fits into the part like a comfortable shoe. If I sound like I’m being too harsh on Branagh, know that I’m a fan – his Shakespearean adaptations are truly marvelous, and his live-action Cinderella is one of the finest recent Disney films in memory. He can build ensembles like no one’s business, and for someone to have that skill, they cannot be all about themselves. But more importantly, he makes Poirot work in a very satisfying manner. When Poirot proclaims something, we believe it, and we become just as invested as he does in setting things right.
Poirot’s skills come to play on the Orient Express, a train taking the world-famous Poirot towards London, where he has been called for assistance. But Poirot quickly becomes embroiled in the murder of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) onboard the train, and everyone is a suspect. Ratchett has a mysterious past, and the more Poirot explores, the more he learns that motive is everywhere.
If you’ve never seen the previous adaptations, or read Christie’s novel, you don’t have to; Branagh establishes relationships and histories early on and does so in an efficient, concise manner, no doubt helped by Michael Green’s script. The cinematography is elegant and not terribly showy, although Branagh does enjoy his tracking shots. But by far the best aspect of the film is the feel; Branagh seems devoted to recreating those films of yore, dripping with great acting talent and sharp dialogue, and not distracting with explosions every few minutes. Murder on the Orient Express is old-fashioned in the best ways, allowing scenes to play out and letting characters breathe. In fact, the film could have been longer – if there’s any drawback here, it’s that sometimes mood is undercut by the necessity of the plot to move along like a – well, like a train. I’m sure, once audiences discover the reveal, that many will want to revisit it to catch hints in the performances.
If Murder on the Orient Express suffers from anything, it’s the constant explanation of the various backstories present. Modern film audiences seem to always try to find the cracks in the facade, instead of simply enjoying the ride. And while the reveal of the murderer may seem convenient, Branagh also manages to find genuine emotion and pathos in it. To Poirot, this isn’t a simple problem to be solved – there is pain and damage here, and Poirot comes face to face with the people behind the clues. It helps that all the supporting performances are solid – Michelle Pfeiffer, especially, does strong work here and I am happy to see her return to the screen. It has been too long. I also liked Josh Gad’s MacQueen, scaly and slick, but also with a purpose. Johnny Depp pulls some of his more eccentric acting qualities back, and Depp playing a nefarious character seems to suit his skills.
Kenneth Branagh has always been a director who tries to have classical foundations to modern entertainment – his Thor is invested with a deep, almost Shakespearean tone, and Cinderella could have dropped straight out of the bombastic studio era of the 1960s. That is, indeed, what he is best at – giving us a look back into cinema history while staying urgently in the present. In that aspect, Murder on the Orient Express succeeds, reminding us of a Hollywood when it wasn’t all superheroes and action, and instead just watching performers we love doing great work and allowing audiences to live in that moment. There are flaws in it, to be sure, but as a piece of retro entertainment, Murder on the Orient Express works well.