A beautifully depicted, wonderfully shot murder mystery pays tribute to Agatha Christie and the legendary Detective Hercule Poirot.
Kenneth Branagh stars in “Murder on the Orient Express,” which he also directs. The way the characters are developed is great fun, as is the personality of Poirot, the grandest “character” of them all.
The film is set in 1934, and the train, which ends up being stalled, carries a great many interesting people — including one that soon will meet an ugly demise. Although the characters aren’t always whom they claim to be, they include a crude mobster-type named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who refuses to pronounce Poirot’s name correctly.
Then there’s Dame Judi Dench as a hard-to-please princess who is accompanied by her dogs and maid, Michelle Pfeiffer as a husband-seeking woman, Daisy Ridley as a reticent governess and Willem Dafoe as a diplomat in an intriguing but subdued role (Dafoe’s performance is subtle but highly effective — watch him toward the end of the film after you’ve learned more about his character). Other members of the ensemble are Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr. and Penelope Cruz.
Branagh has a field day playing Poirot, with all his quirks about details, and captures the detective’s essence both as a director and an actor.
It’s similar to but different than the 1974 Sidney Lumet film that starred Albert Finney as Poirot. The films share different atmospheres. Branagh keeps the tone a dark one. These are suspects with troubled pasts.
The color and the look of the environments, from the mountains to the train’s interiors, are the remarkable work of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. I love the way the murder scene, and several other sequences, are shot from the ceiling down to give us a detached perspective while Poirot tries to solve the slaying. The score by Patrick Doyle is lovely, too.
Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049” and “Logan”) wrote the screenplay, which is a clever one. In fact, were I to categorize this, I’d call it an intelligent popcorn movie — nothing that’s a great revelation or social statement, but good fun, particularly for those who may not remember the first movie — or perhaps who have not seen it at all — and will keep guessing until its finale.
Die-hard aficionados of the first film might not be pleased by this incarnation. But Branagh has done Agatha Christie proud with the mood, characterizations and dialogue in his film. It’s no mystery whether audiences who want to embrace this new version will be entertained.