Directed by Kenneth Branagh Starring Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
Film Review by Kieran Freemantle
Even to people who have never read any Agatha Christie her novel Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most iconic and recognisable titles. Actor/director Kenneth Branagh has taken on the challenge of bringing Christie's work to a new generation of cinemagoers. Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is the world's greatest detective and after solving a case in the powder keg that is the British Mandate of Palestine he earned himself a long overdue rest. However, when in Istanbul, Poirot is requested by the British Home Office to come to London ASAP - leading him to take his fateful journey on the Orient Express and forcing him to investigate another crime. When it comes to adapting Christie's work it is often best suited for television: ITV's Poirot series ran for 24 years and the BBC has released an adaptation over the past two Christmas (although their upcoming adaptation of Ordeal by Innocence has been postponed because of the allegations against Ed Westwick). Christie also favoured the lock room mystery - keeping a group of people in an area that has no escape when the crime is committed. Taking that into account Branagh does a terrific job at making what is a small scale story into a cinematic experience. He starts the film in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem and grand CGI cityscapes of Istanbul and the avalanche is made out to be a huge action sequence. As audiences would expect from a Branagh directed film, Murder on the Orient Express is a lavish production that has lots of customers, grand sets, tracking shots and one of the most well-groomed moustaches in recent movie history. It was a feast for the eyes. Branagh and his team also a formed a great ensemble cast. Branagh is surrounded by stars like Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp and Josh Gad as well emerging talent like Leslie Odom Jr. (Broadway's Hamilton) and Marwan Kenzari (Jafar in Disney's upcoming Aladdin movie). These actors live up to their reputation and there are many great characteristics and dynamics like Dafoe playing a racist Austrian professor who faces off against Ridley's enlighten governess. The cast even has some surprising cast moments like Olivia Colman who plays Princess Dragomiroff's (Judi Dench) long-suffering assistant. Ridley particularly impressed as Mary Debenham, a woman who is able to intelligently spa with Poirot. It's her first major role outside the Star Wars franchise and she should be able to continue her career beyond a galaxy far far away. The first act of the play was a bit like the Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes. Poirot was portrayed as an eccentric with an eye for detail that is both a gift and seemingly has precognitive ability. Even the early tracks in the score could have fitted in those Sherlock Holmes films. The film also has a comedic tone in its early potions before becoming a more serious story involving child-murder and suicide. The issue affecting the adaptation is that the characters have to explain background information to make the mystery work. Viewers who are unaware of the plot would struggle to solve the case themselves because the clues and backstories are revealed so late. But this is an issue that affects a lot of mystery and crime thrillers based on novels because novels have advantage to naturally interweave this information into his narrative but within a film characters have to explain the information and comes across as clunky. Branagh reunites with his regular composer Patrick Doyle and he does provide a great score from the jaunty music that started the film to a more tender piano theme during the emotional moments. It is a great piece of music for fans of film scores. I went into Murder on the Orient Express without seeing any other adaptation, so this review needs to be thought of in that context. Branagh certainly makes a great looking film with a talented cast and the mystery itself is compelling even if it makes out Poirot is a psychic.