Agatha Christie's classic Murder on the Orient Express is lavishly remade with an all-star cast by British auteur Kenneth Branagh. The film, which I was lucky enough to see in 70MM, looks absolutely gorgeous. Branagh, who also stars as the mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot, has a keen eye for detail. His camera placement on the train, wide angle shots of the scenery, and editing work are tremendous. The mystery isn't on par with the 1974 film, but serviceable enough to be entertaining.
Murder on the Orient Express opens in 1934 at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Belgian super sleuth Hercule Poirot once again awes with his legendary investigative skill. Refined, exacting, and over-worked, Poirot is desperate for a sabbatical. His quest for respite is delivered by a philandering old friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman). Return to London in sumptuous luxury via train on the Orient Express. Bouc's uncle has put him in charge of the railway. Poirot accepts to finally get some peace and quiet.
The trip starts off with a hitch. Poirot is forced to share a second class compartment with the slovenly Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). He's then subject to the flirtations of the saucy divorcee, Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer). As if that wasn't bad enough, a truly repulsive fellow, businessman Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), offers Poirot a lucrative job. Poirot politely declines, but is stunned by a brutal murder on the train that night. Everyone is a suspect. With the train blocked by an avalanche, Bouc enlists Poirot to find the killer. His investigation of the passengers leads to a dark and unexpected conclusion.
Branagh's portrayal of Poirot is fairly humorous. His casual arrogance, obsession with his sweet mustache, and dressing down of simpletons will cause a few chuckles. The character is updated to have a more outgoing, if sharp personality. I couldn't help but compare Branagh's Poirot to David Suchet, who played the character for thirteen years on PBS. Suchet was superb from start to finish. He's the benchmark to judge against, even more so than Albert Finney who played Poirot in the 1974 film. Branagh does well enough in his first outing.
I'd guess that most audiences will have some familiarity with the plot. There are tweaks to add a modern sensibility to the cast. Doctor Arbuthnot, played by Sean Connery in 1974, is updated to a black character, Leslie Odom Jr. The changes do not affect the outcome. The big reveal remains the same, so ardent Agatha Christie fans will not be offended. The third act of the film doesn't have the same intricacy. Branagh starts off strong, but is too quick in the climax. Secrets gush like a geyser, whereas everything to that point was quite measured. It's a mad rush at the end. Another ten minutes of character exposition would have been helpful.
Michelle Pfeiffer is the standout performance in the ensemble cast. She's got the most range and is excellent, as always. Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, and Judi Dench have little screen time comparatively. Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley do well enough in their parts. There's a lot of star power on display, but not enough meat on the bone to give everyone their due. The nature of the story relegates some characters as minor. The screenplay by Michael Green adds some new dimensions to the supporting cast, but not enough to be memorable.
From 20th Century Fox, Murder on the Orient Express is a worthy adaptation of Agatha Christie's most famous novel. It's beautiful to see, stunning in the 70MM, wide angle print. Branagh's take on Hercule Poirot is entertaining enough. I liked the humor, but the ending and supporting characters needed more work. You definitely won't see a better collection of mustaches this year. I'll go even farther and say that Branagh's sweet 'stache might be the best ever on film. It's a thing of beauty.