When was the last time Hollywood gave us a true old school style “whodunit” type of film? (Don’t strain your brain here. You can take it as rhetorical.) These types of stories, where a detective is presented with a crime scene and figures it all out with just their intellect and powers of observation have always been a big part of my life. Trying to figure out the culprit before its eventual reveal was always challenging to me, and putting these stories on the big screen have kind of faded into the background. So, what do you do when you want to bring them back? Call Kenneth Branagh.
In his latest film, he brings to life one of the most famous detective novels in Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”. He plays the famous (and infamous, depending on who you are) Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is taking a bit of a vacation on his way to his next case on the famous Orient Express. Unfortunately, fate has its own plans for him as a murder most foul (I have always wanted to use that phrase in a review) happens during a snowstorm that derails the train. No one is seen by Poirot as innocent as he questions the passengers, follows the clues, and races against time to solve the case before the local authorities arrive and could accuse the wrong person of the murder.
OK, so let me run down the cast for you: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Tom Bateman, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. And yes, they are ALL in this thing, as well as Branagh, who also directed. Given all of that paired with the fact that this runs less than two hours, and I was intrigued on multiple levels. And trust me here: this film does not disappoint. Sure, there are some liberties taken from the source material, but none of them are so far out of the norm that will drive the fans of any previous iterations of this story. Branagh is truly enjoyable as the character who is a genius but has his own issues that actually enhance his powers of observation, and his direction is top-notch here. This is gorgeously shot, including a few shots where there is a nod to the old ways of effects, giving a tighter and more nostalgic feel to the modern telling of this tale.
The performances here are exactly what I expected from a cast of this caliber. With a story that has been around as long as “Murder on the Orient Express” has been (the book was written in 1934), there is a bit of a minefield when it comes to bringing it to life that could easily fall down the slope into parody or cariacature, but diverse screenwriter Michael Green, whose resume covers everything from “Green Lantern” to “Everwood” and even “Logan,” is able to write dialogue that lets the actors really get into the skins of these characters to treat them with the proper respect and dignity. Yes, there ARE a few liberties taken with the characters themselves, but there was nothing done that gave me even a little bit of growling. Each character has its own arc and motivations that work into the larger picture in a way that is engaging with no wasted space at all.
There will be people that will find this film to be a bit outlandish, but I feel that those people are those that have not taken the time to really study the genre. Not every film has to dumb itself down to cater to the lowest common denominator, and I really enjoy it when a film tells me to engage my suspension of disbelief and simply entertain me. For great escapism and a reminder of a simpler time, “Murder on the Orient Express” achieves this goal for an audience that can truly appreciate its greatness.