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Movie Review: “Murder on the Orient Express”

Even if you’ve already read Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel and watched the 1974 film from Sidney Lumet, you’ll want to watch Kenneth Branagh’s $55 million remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.” This new film, released on November 10, features an amazing, all-star cast as well as new and interesting takes on this classic murder mystery. Clearly, Kenneth Branagh, who both directs and plays the role of legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, is at the top of his game with “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” features a world-class ensemble cast

Kenneth Branagh has assembled a veritable who’s who from Hollywood for this movie. There’s Johnny Depp, who plays the scandalous American businessman Samuel Ratchett, who is murdered while on the train. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays a very flamboyant Mrs. Hubbard. There’s Judi Dench, who plays the Princess Dragomiroff. There’s Penelope Cruz, who plays Pilar Estravados. And that’s just the beginning – there’s also Daisey Ridley (as the ingénue Mary Debenham), Josh Gad (as a whisky-drinking personal assistant to Ratchett), and Willem Dafoe (who plays a slightly off-kilter Austrian professor).

Thus, one good reason to go see this film is simply to see this all-star cast in action. Johnny Depp deserves special mention here, primarily because the drama in “Murder on the Orient Express” revolves around his mysterious murder. Clues seem to point everywhere – and nowhere – at the same time. And Depp, always up for eccentric and entertaining character roles, pulls off his Samuel Ratchett character with great dexterity. In this film, he is sporting scars and a thug-like accent, and it’s clear that his character has led a very checkered life. But is it enough to murder him? That’s for Hercule Poirot to figure out.

Of course, the inspiration for having such a talented ensemble cast comes from Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film. Lumet gathered together a similar set of Hollywood luminaries – Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery – to star in Agatha Christie’s acclaimed murder mystery. What makes this casting decision work, of course, is that nearly all the action takes place within the tight quarters of the train itself. Having all of these stars in such proximity while on screen is a real moviegoer’s delight.

We see a new kind of Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express”

For Agatha Christie fans, the character of Hercule Poirot has always been somewhat troublesome. His character is filled with so many tics and pet phrases that it’s hard to pull off this role on the big screen without making his character appear campy. And this is where Kenneth Branagh really succeeds – his character of Hercule Poirot is a new kind of Poirot that hasn’t been seen yet.

Yes, Poirot is still filled with odd little mannerisms and pet phrases, but the focus here is much more on his aversion to disorder. For Poirot, solving a mystery is all about bringing order to the world. And the film illustrates this is in the very beginning, when Poirot inadvertently steps into a pile of manure. For anyone else, the next step would be to furiously wash off all the manure and perhaps change into a new pair of trousers for good measure. But Poirot takes a different approach – he proceeds to step with his other foot right into the manure. Why? As he tells the audience, it’s all about bringing order to the world. If the left shoe is soiled, then the right shoe must be as well.

This insight into the mentality of Poirot is essential to the film – and not just an excuse to show the strange mannerisms of this beloved Belgian detective. When he is solving the murder mystery, it is this sense of “order” that dictates his thought process and how he eventually decides to deal with the case.

“Murder on the Orient Express” updates the classic murder mystery

Some critics have noted that this remake has nothing new to say that the first three adaptations of the book – including the 1974 film and the 2001 TV film – didn’t already cover. But that’s not entirely true. If anything, Branagh’s film provides a welcome update to the classic murder mystery.

Here’s just one example: in earlier versions of the story, Poirot assembles all the train passengers into a dining car on the train to tell them his final conclusion. In this film version, though, Poirot leads all the passengers out of the train and into a dark railroad tunnel.

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“Murder on the Orient Express” brilliantly integrates CGI effects

This new film also is noteworthy for the way it is filmed. First and foremost, it means providing some stunning visuals. Some critics, in fact, have gone so far as to describe the cinematography of the film as “opulent.” Part of this, no doubt, is the result of shooting the film with a 65mm camera. This is a camera usually reserved for epic, sweeping films – think “Lawrence of Arabia – but here the camera is deftly used to shoot the surrounding landscape of the moving train. It all adds up to making this film feel much “bigger” than one might assume. In short, this is not just a “train movie” – it feels much more cinematic and sweeping.

“Murder on the Orient Express” will keep you guessing until the very end

The hallmark of any great murder mystery, of course, is the ability to keep the suspense going until the very end. Usually, there are plenty of plot twists and assumptions laid bare along the way. And that’s why this new film from Kenneth Branagh is so extraordinary – even when you know the ending to the book – you’re kept guessing until the very end. You keep asking yourself: “Yes, but what if Branagh decides to mix things up a bit?”

In short, this is an excellent film: five stars out of five. It boasts an incredible, all-star ensemble cast, a talented director with a real vision for bringing classic stories to life, and first-rate cinematography. This is a film that will appeal to more than just Agatha Christie fans. In fact, it is quite likely that this film will help to create a whole new generation of Agatha Christie fans!

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