Murder On the Orient Express (20th Century Fox, PG-13)

To those already familiar with the story, Murder On the Orient Express will be only slightly intriguing. For the rest it will be a tad more than slightly intriguing. This is to say not much is on the plate for the latest Agatha Christie adaptation, and for fans of the original novel, I can imagine that only the interpretation of the characters by the prominent list of actors portraying them will be noteworthy. For people like me who have so far avoided reading or seeing any versions of the classic story, there is also the benefit of watching the mystery unfold and discovering the culprit.

Led by an ensemble cast, the film is almost completely fueled by star power. Kenneth Branagh, a  prolific and competent director, doesn’t reach or transcend his most successful work, such as his inspired Shakespeare adaptations. However, there isn’t much to puzzle over, either, like with his somewhat bizarre version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the electricity used to bring the monster to life is generated by a tank of electric eels (not necessarily a horrible choice but still kinda weird). No, his direction is solid and keeps the story restrained and classy while also not feeling too dull or redundant. There just isn’t enough to feel like the film justifies its own existence, other than a few ham-fisted socially relevant moments that bring racial intolerance into the film’s small list of themes. Another among the list is the nature of right and wrong, and if there can be an in-between. The latter subject is dealt with much more thoughtfully, embodied in the morally rigid Poirot’s gradual arc.

What really works, here, is the performances. It occurred to me that perhaps the flippant bone-throwing towards easy thematic subjects indicates that Branagh had less interest in saying something new with this version of Orient Express than he did in playing Hercule Poirot, the fascinating and indelible French detective made popular by the BBC series from the 90s. And I can’t really chide him for that because he does such a good job in the role, bringing the perfect balance of freshness and eccentricity to a character so bound by an affected and grave acting tradition.  Other standouts are Penelope Cruz as the pious maid and former nurse, who comes across as duplicitously pure and secretive, and Josh Gad as an associate of the deceased, whose alcoholism and depression is made integral to the character and not overbearing through the subtlety in his performance.

There are also some very nice visuals, although I will probably always be disappointed when huge landscapes, as breathtakingly rendered as they can be, are created digitally and not with real locations. Such is the case here. Most the of the film takes place inside a train, but it nonetheless still finds ways to remain visually interesting and dynamic, not letting the cramped, perpetually vertical and one-track space become a stagnant backdrop.

For a mostly-good comparison, you could say that Murder On the Orient Express has gotten the Sherlock Holmes treatment, in that it’s been upgraded with sleek modern visuals and a bit more action. Luckily, it never turns into some period Indiana-Jones knockoff, where Poirot is played by Hugh Jackman and running across the top of the train as if he were Wolverine again. We can all be thankful for that. | Nic Champion

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