Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” Is Everything You’d Hope, and Fear, It Would Be

Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” Is Everything You’d Hope, and Fear, It Would Be

After a preview screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, the studio asked me to write a concise reaction on a card. I wrote something along the lines of, “A grandly old-fashioned mystery, with a heart.”

As my girlfriend and I walked to the car, though, she said she thought the movie was awful. She listed a few specific reasons why, and I had to admit I saw them too. Indulgent filmmaking by director/star Branagh, rushed exposition, unconvincing visual effects. Yep, those are all issues.

So, should you see Murder on the Orient Express? I guess that depends on how much you’re in the mood for a self-consciously “old-fashioned” mystery thriller. It happened to be just what I was looking for, so I enjoyed the film’s virtues: a swooning celebration of the prestige cast, Branagh’s creativity in staging scenes in and around a snowbound train, a clever and satisfying ending.

I didn’t see the ending coming, but then I never see twist endings coming, so maybe that makes me the perfect audience member for a movie like this. I haven’t read Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, and doubtless Christie’s legions of fans will have their own reactions to Branagh’s depiction of Hercule Poirot, who’s the world’s greatest detective and well knows it.

Branagh clearly glories in this role. There would of course be no question that he’d be the guy you’d turn to for such an old-school, ego-gratifying turn: he’s been compared to Orson Welles since his Henry V (1989). He’s wonderfully watchable, even if the film can’t quite nail the right tone for the character. Screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049Logan) gives Poirot several amusing offhand remarks about his own prowess, but at the screening I attended, no one was laughing — perhaps because Branagh clings so tightly to a sense of epic drama that viewers weren’t sure whether they were supposed to laugh.

The movie’s promotional campaign, though, hasn’t been premised on the notion that moviegoers are dying to see Kenneth Branagh in an extreme mustache. Instead, it rightly plays up the cavalcade of stars who play the passengers on the eponymous conveyance. Their faces might as well appear at the bottom of the poster in cameo ovals, like featured players in a ’70s miniseries.

Penélope Cruz as the nun with a dark past! Willem Defoe as the Nazi! Judi Dench as the surly princess, and Olivia Colman as her maid! Leslie Odom Jr. as the war-veteran doctor! Michelle Pfeiffer as the bombshell! Daisy Ridley as the mysterious young woman! Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton as the sexy count and his sexy addict wife! Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the company man, and Marwan Kenzari as the conductor! Johnny Depp as the shady art dealer, and Josh Gad as his assistant, and Derek Jacobi as his valet!

Got all that? If not, you’ll probably still be fine. Branagh’s adept visual storytelling sketches each in turn, with generous closeups that linger on the gorgeous faces from the addled young Boynton to the regal Dench. (I know it’s a stereotype to call Judi Dench “regal,” but she’s literally playing a princess.) As Poirot begins his interviews, Branagh finds a fresh approach to each.

One of the best has the detective inviting Ridley’s character to a table set in the snow. The Force Awakens star is more than a match for her veteran peers, with a resolute gaze that all but burns through the screen. If you didn’t think they made them like this any more — either movies or stars — it turns out that you’re quite wrong.

Branagh’s sense of moment does get away with him in some of the sweeping exteriors. While a brief chase through the trestles of a bridge spanning a frozen river is exciting, the wider shots are prone to a gauzy glow that suggests the cinematographer was Thomas Kinkade. (It was actually Haris Zambarloukos, best known for such painterly pieces as Mamma Mia! and Thor.) The computer-generated effects left me longing for a good matte painting, and the shots of the train’s exterior compare unfavorably to the up-close views captured in the IMAX documentary Rocky Mountain Express, a film truly intoxicated with the romance of the rails.

All that said, I stand by my original assessment: I left Murder on the Orient Express a satisfied customer. Sign me up for the round trip.

Jay Gabler