It is the 1930s, and famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is returning from a case in Jerusalem. Desperate for a vacation, he decides to journey home on the luxurious Orient Express, with the three day trip from Istanbul to Paris giving him ample time to relax and catch up on his reading. Shortly after departure, he is approached by a paranoid man named Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who believes his life is in danger and desires a bodyguard. Poirot, cautious about Ratchett’s colorful past, declines. But when the train is trapped in a mountain pass by an avalanche and Ratchett is found with numerous stab wounds, Poirot takes it upon himself to determine which of his fellow passengers is a murderer.
Murder on the Orient Express is a film which simply oozes style and splendor. From the gorgeous period dress to the rich cinematography and the expertly crafted sets, this is a film which defines the luxury of the time period in which it is set. Unlike many modern remakes of classic stories, Branagh resists the temptation to spice the film up much for modern audiences. Like the classic murder mysteries of decades past, the film maintains a steady and even tone throughout. Physical action is minimal, and most of the focus is on Poirot as he gathers clues and interviews the passengers. While in the hands of a less-skilled director this could have spelled disaster, the wonderful cast and smooth script make sure the film never drags during its 114 minute run time.
Speaking of the cast, all the members are excellent. Along with the aforementioned Branagh and Depp, the passengers include Judi Dench as a deposed Eastern European princess, Willem Dafoe as a vaguely-Nazi Austrian scientist, Michelle Pfeiffer as a husband-hunting socialite, and Josh Gad as the victim’s exasperated assistant, not to mention Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, and more. Each of them give a wonderful performance, even if some their accents are a little all over the place. But Branagh’s Poirot is the really fascinating character in the film. A man obsessed with balance and perfection of all sorts with an unshakeable moral compass, Poirot describes himself as a man cursed with only being able to see the world “as it should be, not as it is.” Of course, as anyone familiar with the source material knows, this is a case that forces Poirot to challenge his rigid view of right and wrong, and accept that maybe there is space between how things are and how things should be.
A stylist, graceful, and well-acted who dun’ it, Murder on the Orient Express is a must-see for fans of mysteries and period pieces, as well as Christie faithfuls of course. Even if you don’t fall into one of those categories, this film should make excellent counter-programming to the autumn superhero line-up. This is the kind of film that you don’t see much anymore, and I urge you to give it a shot while you can. Its not often we get such a fascinating glimpse into the past.