By Jack Dignan
Despite his appearances in various live action and animated TV shows and movies over the last couple of decades, as well as his origins in Agatha Christie’s iconic literature, I rarely find Hercule Poirot’s name mentioned amongst the greatest fictional detectives. You get the typical Sherlock Holmes, Tintin or Inspector Clouseau replies, maybe even Scooby Doo, but Poirot isn’t as high up on the list as he deserves to be, and it’s finally time that starts to change. After all, he’s essentially Holmes with a moustache, and I’m all for it.
Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted several times before. It’s perhaps most famous for the 1974 adaptation starring Albert Finney, but the source material is one of Poirot’s bestselling investigations. Think Cluedo, but on a train. Poirot, played here by director Sir Kenneth Branagh, is travelling cross country on the titular Orient Express when, half way through the journey, the trip comes to an abrupt halt. The passengers are snowed in, forced to wait it out for three days with no option but to remain on-board, and worst of all, overnight a passenger has mysteriously been murdered. Thankfully for them, Detective Poirot is on the case.
It’s a classic murder mystery throwback through and through. Not only does it retain the source material’s retro setting (albeit modern for back then), but it plays out like a film from that era too, with a modernized style that keeps the audience on their toes. It’s fierce and endlessly creative, especially for a film confined to a single location. Branagh directs it flawlessly, perfectly suited for the film’s charming, immensely likeably and Dickens-obsessed lead role. That moustache is to die for. There’s a scene that depicts Branagh’s Poirot waking up in the morning, wearing an overnight moustache protector, and I honestly think it changed my life.
While it may star far too many a-list celebrities to list in a review, featuring the likes of Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer and so many others, the real star of the film is the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. The frequent Branagh collaborator utilizes every inch of the frame to his advantage. Not a shot went by that didn’t look or feel stunning. It glimmers with elegance, shining brighter and more beautifully than Branagh’s moustache. From the production design to costuming to overall aesthetic, this movie is visual ecstasy. Truly a trip I was sad to depart from.
The beauty of a film like this, too, is that is never falls into style over substance. Granted, the style far outweighs the substance in terms of impressiveness, but the story and the writing are endlessly investing. The dialogue feels very theatre, to the point where it’s often inhuman. Still, this story embraces the fact that it’s fiction and pushes all the boundaries. The narrative is slow-paced and a bit of a stretch, one that couldn’t possibly exist outside of its own world, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a classic, unpredictable detective story that works, even if it’s not one that would really require a re-watch, especially after having read the book and watching the original film.
Screenwriter Michael Green is having one hell of a year. Between this and co-writing Blade Runner 2049, Logan and Alien: Covenant, Green is working out quite the résumé, certainly redeeming himself from 2011’s Green Lantern (which I never found to be that awful). The actors give it their all, each giving somewhat exaggerated performances, but exaggerated to the point where everything comes together nicely. They play caricatures and stereotypes, from the gangster to the butler to the widow and beyond, but everyone here is having a ball. Not everyone gets a lot of screen time, but you certainly get a sense of what they’re all about, even if I did forget that two of the characters were actually on the train until two thirds of the way through.
I do hope this film makes a lot of money. Despite living in a very franchise-driven Hollywood era, one that makes films feel more episodic than cinematic, a crime-mystery detective franchise set in the 30s is a series I can definitely see myself, and the general audience for that matter, coming back to. Agatha Christie fans will be delighted to hear of the film’s closing set up, and while they don’t necessarily need to follow it through to a sequel, the potential for an exciting, fresh franchise is certainly upon us.
3 1/2 Stars
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