Review by Matt Cummings
Lost in the cacophony of superheroes, explosions, and raunchy holiday comedies, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS arrives ready to remind us what old-school film was like. Lavish in its cinematic appointments, it also serves as an effective old-school thriller, so long as you haven’t seen any of the various versions.
The world-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has recently solved a theft near The Weeping Wall, much to the delight of the crowd and the nervous suspects. But under that brilliant mind lies a tired old man ready for a long vacation. Accepting a job in London, Poirot decides to take the famous Orient Express train, hoping to recover his vigor. Unfortunately, the lavish lifestyle set aboard the train comes to a halt when one of the passengers is soon murdered, leaving every passenger as a prime suspect. Faced with multiple suspects and an avalanche that leaves the train snowed-in for several days, Poirot begins an investigation that will challenge him at every turn, leaving the detective at a crossroads in his life’s charge.
MURDER is a stylish, sophisticated thriller that reminds us of the way old school film is made. Branagh is at the top of his game visually here, wrapping his Who’s-Who cast (which includes Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, and Penelope Cruz) in sumptuous period clothing and gorgeous sets. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and Branagh craft elegant moments throughout but also grant us several technically splendid steady-shots that should serve well in a Film 101 class. The cast responds throughout, keeping Poirot on his feet until the murderer is revealed in a moment that is very different from the popular 1974 version. Younger audiences won’t care, but those who’ve done their cinematic homework could be disappointed; I’d disagree, as I think this one works just as well. It’s far more tense than any of the three previous versions, better shot, and filled with Composer Patrick Doyle’s elegant score.
Still, MURDER does suffer from a slower second act than it should, suddenly pulling out yet another suspect who’s been hidden since the first 15 minutes of the film. Their story is of course related to the larger plot, and Poirot’s investigation does yield some interesting dialogue, but it takes way too long to develop and further muddies an already heavy list of suspects. I do like that Branagh felt that he had to re-tell the ending to keep things fresh, but I could see some audiences growing a bit tired at the many connections Poirot makes. Some of Branagh’s French is hard to understand and an entire sequence in German does require you to read subtitles. But I think the results are worth it, as Writer Michael Green (who also penned BLADE RUNNER 2049 and LOGAN) also makes MURDER a very funny film at times. Poirot is a neat freak, obsessed with eating perfect meals and going to great lengths to keep his huge mustache looking great while sleeping. Once the murder occurs, most of that hilarity moves to a noticeably darker tone, with Green injecting the script with solid back-and-forth.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There is a subtle suggestion at the end of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS that a sequel might be in the works. The question is whether audiences have the desire to see such old-school productions that care little for trend or modern sensibilities. I hope so: MURDER is a smart throwback to a time when moviegoers were made to step into the hero’s shoes, assembling the terms of the crime and sometimes coming up with results so unbelievable that it challenges their very charge. I wish Branagh had spent a little more time with this conundrum, and you’ll see why if you decide to take a chance on it. And I hope you do see this one: it comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.