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Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Movie Review

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) movie poster Murder on the Orient Express

Theatrical Release: November 10, 2017 / Running Time: 114 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Kenneth Branagh / Writers: Michael Green (screenplay); Agatha Christie (novel)

Cast: Tom Bateman (Bouc), Lucy Boynton (Countess Andreyni), Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Johnny Depp (Edward Ratchett), Judi Dench (Princess Natalia Dragomiroff), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Binjamino Marquez), Derek Jacobi (Edward Masterman), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Sergei Polunin (Count Andrenyi), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham)


Cinema's ongoing fascination with superheroes and spectacle make it seem like a strange time to sink money into a new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, but that's what
20th Century Fox has done as holiday season counterprogramming. This new filming of Agatha Christie's 1934 mystery hails from Shakespeare-seasoned Kenneth Branagh, who impresses less with his direction than his lead turn as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The boldly mustachioed Poirot is one of the greatest detectives in the world, something he'll tell you as he solves crimes by noticing the most minor of details. An early scene sees Poirot solving the theft of a religious artifact in which three holy men are the primary suspects. Next, Poirot is to board the titular train, claiming the only available bed with help from a friend. Onboard, Poirot is recruited by an American man named Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to be his personal bodyguard for a hefty sum. Ratchett believes people are out to get him, but Poirot refuses the offer.

Kenneth Branagh both directed and stars as Hercule Poirot in 2017's "Murder on the Orient Express."

Ratchett's fears were well-founded. He winds up dead, murdered in the night, shortly before the train derails amidst a minor avalanche. Every passenger is a suspect, from Ratchett's suspicious personal secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) to a wealthy old princess (Judi Dench) to a couple of couples (Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr., Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin) and single strangers (Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz).

I vividly recall reading Christie's novel a little over twenty years ago in school and being fully immersed and then ultimately disappointed by the ending. Knowledge of that very much colors how you will receive this. If you know the text or the 1974 film adaptation that starred Albert Finney and Sean Connery, then you know where this is headed and can only look for clues that point to the resolution, of which there really aren't any. If you're coming in cold, you're also looking for clues, but probably going to be blindsided by the ending.

Of course I'm not going to spoil this or even go into any further plot specifics. I will say that Murder seems like a passion project for Branagh, who for a while now has been more prolific as a director than an actor. Here, he commits to playing Poirot, a colorful literary hero perhaps best known to modern audiences via the UK's ITV series that ran for 13 series over a quarter century from 1989 to 2013. As an actor, Branagh commands the screen as the detective who's sly, meticulous, and serious but amusing.

When Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp, right) ends up dead, his personal secretary MacQueen (Josh Gad) is the first suspect questioned.

As you can tell from the parenthetical names a few paragraphs back, Branagh has surrounded himself with some distinguished talent, led by Depp, who bows out early but not before making a strong impression as his gun-toting gangster. On paper, the movie might sound really good, with all these veterans embodying these colorful parts that are defined by ambiguity and possible guilt.
It's like a star-studded Clue without the comedy. But Branagh seems to be in a different and better movie than everyone else. That must be by design, to emphasize that Poirot operates on a different plane than everyone else. But it just makes the movie feel kind of lackluster and disjointed, like Branagh brought his A-game as an actor and everyone else is just kind of phoning it in. Pfeiffer looks bored. Depp looks old. Dafoe looks like he's just having a bit of fun, which at least rubs off a little on the viewer.

Made for $55 million, a fraction of what Warner Bros. spent on Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes blockbusters, Murder is light on action. The train set where most of the film takes place is suitably period and easy on the eyes without being the production design achievement you might imagine it being. A few outdoor visual effects shots look a bit rough for a big studio holiday season release. But through it all, Murder remains watchable. It's not particularly intelligent or sophisticated. It's more movie than film. And though it's never boring, it's also never really fun or disarming. It's something could have been made in much the same way any time over the past twenty years and wouldn't be significantly different than it is here. Needless to say, at this time of year, there are much more enjoyable films to take in.

Related Reviews:
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Directed by Kenneth Branagh: ThorCinderella (2015) | Written by Michael Green: LoganBlade Runner 2049
Johnny Depp: Black MassPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No TalesDark ShadowsInto the WoodsDead Man
Michelle Pfeiffer: mother!Stardust | Daisy Ridley: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Girl on the TrainSnowpiercerThe Darjeeling LimitedSherlock Holmes

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Reviewed November 10, 2017.

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