When a movie kicks off with visuals that blur the line between naturally-shot and digitally-enhanced, you know you’re in for something special. The Harry Potter franchise was the first to do this, in my recorded memory, and continues to do so with its Fantastic Beasts spin-off films (yes, multiple; Warner Bros. is definitely doing more). Like those, though, I hadn’t read the source material for Murder on the Orient Express, so I’d no idea what I was getting myself into. For some reason, I thought I’d read it in school, but I can never rely on my long-memory for much of anything, anymore. Either way, going into this film was like walking into the story fresh, through fresh eyes of a new, highly-under-talked-about director.
For this critic, Murder on the Orient Express is the defining line between what makes a “movie” and what makes an honest-to-goodness “film”.
I’ll get the (very little) bad news out of the way, first…
Some of the roles seem underplayed. Not phoned-in; all those present are of the caliber of actor whose talent and performance is never in-question. However, some parts are really dolled up in the trailer to give us an impression of how this tale will fare; looking back with my 20/20 hindsight, I can see the clues that even the trailer was giving us as to the plot that would unfold. Brilliant and sneaky move on the filmmakers’ part, in that case, but points off for semi-predictability.
Alright, on to the good stuff…
Being the third western adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel, I was surprised this film was able to pull off what it did. After a novel and two other adaptations—one in 1974 with Albert Finney in the role of Poirot, and another made-for-TV in 2001, starring Alfred Molina—it’s hard to keep the mystery and suspense of a film (especially a crime-thriller) so tight. With anyone else than Kenneth Branagh as the lead, and at the helm, it may have been near-impossible. Being of the camp that never read the book, I was just as thrown by the reveal as I’m sure others were, and I applaud the film for keeping enough of a mystery where I can have some fun with my own deductions. I’m no Hercule Poirot, but it’s fun to forget for a couple hours and be in that kind of head-space, especially that of such a master detective.
Poirot is amazing. Branagh pulls off the French-Belgian thing perfectly, and…by God, that moustache. Agatha Christie would be proud (as she was noted to have disliked Finney’s pencil-thin ‘stache in the original 1974 adaptation). As the benchmark iteration, though, I’ll probably take a look at some point—call it comparative research. I should read the book, too… Enough lamenting, back to the film at-hand!
So, Poirot is an immediate attention-grabber, for his brilliance and wit, and Sherlock Holmes-style deduction. The rest of the cast…I’ve not seen so much star-studded talent in one place. Saving filmographies—these actors need no introduction. Willem Dafoe, (Dame; surprised that wasn’t on the promo material) Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer—whom also performs the mid-credits song for the film; I had no idea the pipes she possessed—Johnny Depp in a not-so-Jack Sparrow role, and Derek Jacobi are all phenomenal. The new faces—Leslie Odom, Jr., Tom Bateman (no relation to Jason), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, whom wasn’t in much of the film, but I do remember him from the latest take on The Magnificent Seven, Sergei Polunin, and Lucy Boynton—rounded out the cast. One piece of cinematic candy after another, and good characters—whether played by Hollywood legends or not—are the beating heart of each story. No one disappoints here.
There’s a surprising amount of humor and levity, for the film having such a dark premise. The contained setting, lavish though it is—praise be to the set designers who must have put in long, meticulous hours to get everything perfect and period-accurate—has us focus, instead on the characters and a motive each may or may not have had in committing the murder. The period costuming, too, is vibrant, but fits with the setting, doesn’t look out-of-place on anyone. Clear inspirations can be inferred, such as Dafoe’s shocking resemblance to Sigmund Freud.
Artfully-shot, with intriguing shooting angles and framing shots, long-takes—some shorter, but very well-disguised with invisible cuts and wipes to seem longer than they are)—a gripping premise, and visuals that could be paintings out of an art museum, Murder on the Orient Express earns its place beside previous iterations. This is probably one I’d see over again, or, at least, dole out the $25 to get on Blu-Ray.
Final ‘Risk Assessment: ****/*.
Next review: Stranger Things, Season 2