MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) based on the novel by Agatha Christie, is a classic locked-room mystery on the most elegant mode of transportation man ever created. With Christie’s version of Sherlock Holmes, the clues are sparse and the suspects are plentiful, however, the mystery is leisurely and well-paced. This is a movie worth settling in and enjoying.
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is heading home after his latest job and all he really wants is a long rest. He’s fastidious and fussy, but he has a manner that is both comfortable and intimidating. After a murder in 1st Class aboard the Simplon-Orient-Express (the Orient Express to plebs like you and me), Poirot has a train full of passengers and not much time or clues to solve it. Once they reach their destination the Killer could scatter to the four winds and never be brought to justice.
No one here is what they seem, from the Governess (Daisy Ridley) to the Valet (Derek Jacobi) to the Doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) due in London for his rounds, everyone is suspiciously shifty with something to hide. At the center of the mystery is one Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and circling the edges is cougar socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Since we don’t want to spoil the mystery (even though most of us read it in high school at least once) let talk about the ensemble cast, which is what makes this classic tale feel fresh and alive. Branagh’s Poirot is traditional and sharp. He lets the clues take him to a logical conclusion which is why they feel wrong. Branagh portrays him with a touch of OCD synesthesia. The wrongness of everything is what makes all of it stand out. Josh Gad is Macqueen, one of Ratchett’s toadies. He cooks the books for his green antiquities-dealing boss, but his conscience and drinking betray him on more than one occasion. Hiding under diplomatic immunity is Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her secretary, Fräulein Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) and the Princess won’t be bothered with something as pedestrian as a murder.
Rounding out the rogue’s gallery of suspects is a Count (international ballet bad-boy turned actor, Sergei Polunin) and his over-medicated wife (Lucy Boyton), a car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an Austrian doctor (Willem Dafoe), a missionary (Penélope Cruz) and a retired Colonel (Phil Dunster). Yep, there are a lot of suspects and they all have a tight alibi.
The beauty of this story is while you want to know whodunit, the pacing and the vibrant cast keep this movie from feeling like another rehashed literary romp. You’re puzzled but Branagh won’t let you get too far ahead of Poirot – if you could solve a mystery before Poirot, you’d be bored with him quickly. Agatha Christie felt the same way about her charaters. If just anoyone could solve them, she vertainly wouldn’t waste her time bringing in the worlds greatest detectives. The clues are there, but they aren’t lingered over. There’s no luxury to pick over items of interest – things are happening too fast, and if you can’t keep up, that’s okay. Just enjoy the movie.
If there’s one thing dragging down the movie, it’s MIchelle Pfeiffer. Her scenes are well chewed, and her Caroline never finds her footing. She’s either too nonchalant or too high strung. We’re never given an opportunity to find a balance with her and she brings her scenes down a notch just by sweeping by. It’s unfortunate, but please don’t let that keep you from this film. The strength of the rest of the cast keeps this movie soaring, and whether or not you figure out the end really is inconsequential. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a movie to be savored for its gorgeous sets, its bone-chilling settings, and its quick and sharp dialogue. The score is fantastic too, managing to be both nondescript and a character all its own. This is a smart film that won’t make everyone else feel dumb. I can’t tell you if this will be a contender for an Oscar since I’m not smart about such things, but it was a sumptuous feast for the brain.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is Rated PG-13 for mild violence, a few gunshots, and dramatic acting.