Movie review: Murder on the Orient Express arrives in style

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in Murder on the Orient Express, in which he delivers a captivating performance as the formidable Inspector Hercule Poirot. Photo by 20th Century Fox Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in Murder on the Orient Express, in which he delivers a captivating performance as the formidable Inspector Hercule Poirot. Photo by 20th Century Fox

While attempting a brief vacation from being the world’s greatest detective, Inspector Hercule Poirot has been reading the hell out of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. With every page, he cackles in delight, a reaction likely based as much on the opportunity to let someone else tell the stories as on the book itself.

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express should be enjoyed the same way. It’s no disservice to call the film a trifle, a steady genre exercise with gorgeous visuals, a terrific sense of style and memorable performances from reliable A-listers, plus star-making turns from lesser-known actors. It’s elegant, fun, full of good humor and totally disposable, as most good whodunits are.

Murder on the Orient Express
PG-13, 115 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX and Violet Crown Cinema

These may sound like negative criticisms, but a mystery story that places the emphasis on piecing it all together is always a self-contained endeavor, knocking down the dominoes intentionally placed by the author. Once you know the resolution, there’s not much point in repeating the experience. This to Hitchcock was the key difference between mystery and suspense; in suspense stories, we know the thief/murderer/etc. in advance, so the tension comes in the form of watching people outmaneuver one another. If you’re placing the focus on resolution rather than tension, you need to be comfortable with a single-serving narrative and make the diversion a fun one, which director Branagh does expertly.

The film, based on Agatha Christie’s most famous novel, follows Poirot (Branagh) as he works to solve the most vexing crime of his storied career. The eccentric Belgian finds himself on the titular train between cases, when a murder takes place in his car in the middle of the night. A sudden avalanche derails the train, so it is up to Poirot to solve the crime before the rescue crew arrives.

The victim, Ratchett (Johnny Depp) was certainly an unpleasant and even cruel man, but no single motive or alibi completely adds up, and the evidence found at the scene appears artificially placed to throw off the investigation. Even the act itself is unusual, as Ratchett was stabbed 12 times with no apparent pattern or consistency in handedness or strength.

Watching Poirot work in his usual manner is great fun, but Branagh’s performance truly shines when his character’s normal tactics fail, forcing him to improvise. We learn his personal philosophy, what it is that makes him a legend, and see the man behind the mustache. It’s a terrific take on a role that could have easily fallen into caricature.

The ensemble cast is also flawless—Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley—and Michelle Pfeiffer continues her wonderful return to the spotlight. Josh Gad delivers his second great performance of the year (the first in Marshall), and Leslie Odom, Jr. will become a household name in due time.

If you’re familiar with either the source material or the adaptations, there won’t be any surprises, but the real reason to see it is the depth it brings to Poirot. For everyone else, just about the only bad thing there is to say is that though it looks gorgeous, people look insufficiently cold in what is supposed to be an exterior, interrupting the immersion momentarily. That’s it, the only drawback. See it, bring the family aged 13 and up so hopefully they’ll make one of the several sequels they tease.

Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

A Bad Moms Christmas, The Bodyguard, Daddy’s Home 2, The Florida Project, Thor: Ragnorok, Video Vortex: The Art of Dying

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

A Bad Moms Christmas, Blade Runner 2049, Boo 2!: A Madea Halloween, Daddy’s Home 2, Happy Death Day, Jigsaw, Thank You For Your Service, Thor: Ragnorok, Wonderstruck

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

A Bad Moms Christmas, Daddy’s Home 2, The Florida Project, Loving Vincent, Thor: Ragnorok, Victoria and Abdul

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