Murder On the Orient Express

 

            The 1934 novel by Agatha Christie receives a 21st-century re-write, ably presided over by Kenneth Branagh, who both directs and stars as Hercule Poirot, the world's greatest detective.  Never mind that Christie envisioned Poirot to be a short, fat Belgian who spoke French; Branagh is Irish who scatters French phrases in his speech, then uses his German in his line of questioning.  It's all in good fun; we're taking a train from Jerusalem to Istanbul with no security visible anywhere.

            And of course in the 1930's, vacationing rich people on a first-class train would have been stylishly dressed.  It's a great opportunity for some Hollywood A-listers to style up in period costume:  Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz....all lend stylishness, even if there's not enough screen time for all to shine equally.

            Yes, there's a murder on this train, that happens sometime in the middle of the night, and somewhere between Jerusalem and Istanbul.  To add to the confusion, the train is derailed by a  lightning-induced snow avalanche in the mountains.  So everybody is stuck together for a while on a train that isn't moving, which is convenient for the parlar drama, even if we do wonder how they all kept from freezing to death.

            Because the movie is based on a book, its plot is tight and its narrative takes the viewer in a particular direction.  But the accents are sometimes difficult to understand, and the casting's political correctness of insuring a diverse racial mix among the constituents was certainly not something Ms. Christie envisioned in the 1930's.  But none of that is as distracting as the plot twist at the end, which is how detective stories should be.

            Branagh hams it up just right as the fussy, perfectionist Hercule Poirot, who will ask men to straighten their ties.  And demand that his eggs be a certain distance apart.  He hates being lied to, and in this case everyone lies.  He's good at perceiving clues where few others would (we demonstrate this by a little preview of  public detecting next to the Wailing Wall, of all places).  But in this case, there are so many clues left laying about that Mr. Poirot wonders if he's being set up.  Yes, our intrepid detective is supposed to be on holiday, and then he's scheduled to be back in London, but we get the feeling that he would have taken this one on even if he didn't happen to stumble upon it.

Some cases are just so ripe with potential and rife with discord that Hercule Poirot, World's Greatest Detective, could not help but be interested.  And neither can we.  But hurry to see it before somebody gives away the punch line.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association