Murder on the Orient Express review – a fun game of whodunit with a top cast

As far as actor-directors go there are few as varied and talented as Kenneth Branagh, from critically lauded versions of Shakespeare to his near perfect but financially flat Frankenstein, through his opera adaptation The Magic Flute into the first Thor film, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Cinderella, Branagh has a knack for entering into sacred texts and doing them justice. Now he’s tackling the mistress of suspense Agathe Christie and her famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

Directing, and starring as the famous sleuth, Branagh is working on top form. Despite it being done by Sidney Lumet many years previous and adapted for TV twice, this old, worn story still unfurls with masterful twisting and turning. Along with screenwriter Michael Green, Branagh makes the most of the long set up, giving us a sense of growing unease, a sort of geography of personalities, and with each introduction we make assumptions that are very clearly not going to be true.

Kenneth Branagh Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

The story, for those who are unaware,begins with the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot desperate for a little time off. To find order and balance in the world, when he is on the Orient Express train he finds a case he cannot resist. A snow drift, a dead gangster, and a carriage filled with disparate people all of whom have a reason to kill the guy.

The cast, it has to be said, is impressive. Alongside Branagh as Poirot, we have Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. Now that’s a cast list.

Murder on the Orient Express Tom Bateman Leslie Odom Jr Daisy Ridley

Tom Bateman, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy-Ridley

The film works because there is something very cinematic about the way Branagh creates a sense of space. At times the carriage appears claustrophobic and small, filled with too many people and too narrow halls, but soon it appears huge, like a city all unto itself. It also helps that Patrick Doyle’s score underlines the beauty and the horror of the situation. The snowy banks offer bright white trappings, all of which juxtapose with the thoroughly grey areas the film explores.

With so many characters, it’s hard not to find some of them falling into thumbnail sketches. Judi Dench is great at creating a sense of simplicity in her acting. Her Russian Princess, at first a prude and rude boss, suddenly sympathetic and understandable.

Judi Dench Olivia Colman Murder on the Orient Express

Judi Dench and Olivia Colman as Hildegarde Schmidt and Princess Dragomiroff

Among the rest of the cast Jacobi also does well as the manservant to Depp’s gangster, and manages to illicit sympathy and trust in a number of scenes. In fact everyone does well, but it’s Depp who actually turns in a decent performance that surprises, it appears that even when he’s at an all-time low in publicity terms he can still act well. The younger members of the cast;  Leslie Odom Jr., Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad are all perfect in their roles also. In fact, it’s Pfeiffer and Cruz who let the side down here, with a weak need to overact at certain times.

Overall the film is enjoyable, not just for it’s score or for the great cast all having a great time, but for the way it unfolds slowly and surely. Poirot might be an old character, but Branagh makes the time between wars feel like a time where things are changing. There’s a reason this train has movie stars and royalty mixing with religious figures and gangsters; the world experienced something horrific, and oddly enough is about to experience something horrific again. It’s a story about a man who believes in black and white, who’s coming to accept it’s not always that simple.

That’s not to say there isn’t humour, because there is. Branagh has a masterful sense of comic timing and the gags are genuinely funny. The quirks of Poirot and his little asides and ticks are very funny, and offer moments that enable the building tension to become more and more. Not only this but the film is able to crank tension and let it slip when it gets to a point where the film might fall apart. This can only be done by a man who has worked in various genres.

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The casting is also very clever, mixing big names actors and up-and-coming stars makes for a film that breeds suspicion. Our knowledge that the big names are always the guilty underpinned by the idea that it might be one of the people we’ve never seen before. There’s also good skewering of racial issues in the early 20th century. The line “I hold no prejudice to the colour of a man’s skin” followed seconds later by the caveat “depends on the colour” is very witty.

It might prove a little problematic for some people who like a grand climax, and when the film promises shoot-outs and chases it also says no to a lot of typical thrills, which might prove a little anti-climactic for some tastes, but as the end to a broiling character study it works perfectly.

If this heralds more work by Branagh as the detective then it might prove to be a surprise franchise, and the end coda does offer some of the future installments. It’s uneven at times, much like the snow that derails the train, but it’s a fun game of whodunit with a top line cast and a wonderful score. It’s just the pre-Christmas chill-fest that people need to prepare for the colder times that are upon us.

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