Perhaps it says something about a movie featuring the likes of Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer and others that I came out of it talking about the cinematography and production design. In my case, the reason might have something to do with the fact that having seen and remembered Sidney Lumet’s equally star-driven 1974 film of Agatha Christie’s best-known mystery novel, I already knew whodunit. Getting wrapped up story-wise in a murder mystery in which you already know the outcome is a tall order, but as I say in my video review above, the sheer beauty and cinematic quality of Murder on the Orient Express kept me more than engaged.
Thanks for that is owed to director Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (along with one of the screen’s most memorable moustaches he has cast as his co-star). In the new film version, he and screenwriter Michael Green are very faithful to the original text and Lumet’s 43-year-old film in terms of its twists and turns. For fans of the piece, it is no spoiler alert to assure you they haven’t changed the basic culprit, but they have found a unique way to make that revelation a lot less claustrophobic and certainly have given it more visual panache. Is that enough? For me it was because Branagh knows his stuff, and he has crafted such a stunning, if old-fashioned, visual ride on this train that the net result is, in a word, spectacular.
Right from the start you know you are in good hands as Branagh, with prime help from cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and production designer Jim Clay, sets up a couple of dazzling continuous tracking shots in which we are introduced to this magnificent train as well as the passengers — all of whom soon will be suspects. The camera work and layout of these scenes is brilliant, and Branagh clearly is having a ball walking through it all as Poirot, a man who soon will be on a mission to find out just which of this group knocked off one of them as they were en route to Europe — and why. Poirot sets out to interview each of them to get to the bottom of it all. What he finds is there is a connection with an American family whose child was kidnapped and later murdered.
Christie, who wrote the book in 1934, obviously was inspired by the real-life kidnapping of the Charles Lindbergh baby. Thus everyone who somehow has a link with this case in one way or another becomes prey for Poirot’s inquisition. Here’s the thing: Once he starts grilling the suspects, the film naturally bogs down if you know the eventual outcome; but if you don’t, then you will be hard pressed to find a grander or more delightful way to spend a couple of hours. What is really impressive for me is the bigness of it all. Branagh shot Murder on the Orient Express with rarely used 65mm cameras in the widest screen process possible. Watching that train roll through the snowy mountainside is breathtaking. 20th Century Fox plans to release it in all widescreen formats and Imax but also in select 70mm film prints when it opens on Friday. This is one you don’t want to watch on your laptop.
Perhaps the experience of co-starring in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, also shot and released this way, rubbed off on Branagh. The reality is, he always has been a proponent of shooting in this format and did his 1996 four-hour film of Hamlet in the same process. Other tech credits include divine costumes from Alexandra Byrne and a great score from Branagh’s go-to music guy, Patrick Doyle. CGI visual effects are flawless. As for the cast which also includes Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe, standout for me was Pfeiffer, blessedly back making movies after she took a hiatus. Dench always is a pleasure to watch, as is Depp, whose scenes with Branagh are first-rate. Ingrid Bergman won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1974 film, which nabbed a Best Actor nomination as well for Albert Finney as Poirot. I don’t expect any members of this cast to rise to those heights, but they get the job done, as does Branagh, who does fine double duty and keeps this all from going off the rails. Producers are Mark Gordon, Judy Hofflund, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, and Branagh.
Do you plan to see Murder on the Orient Express? Let us know what you think.