Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Screenplay by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judie Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad and more
Grade: Three and a half stars
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good old-fashioned whodunit.
If that sentence makes you wrinkle your nose and question my sanity, then you probably want to move on to another review. If you agree with it, however, then you definitely want to check out the latest movie adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” hitting theaters this weekend. Even if you already know the ending, Branagh’s adaptation offers a deeply satisfying detective story with surprisingly gorgeous visuals, a few narrative flourishes that by and large only manage to enrich the original tale, and a fabulous new incarnation of one of fiction’s best (and most entertaining) detectives.
This version starts with Poirot solving a different case than the original novel, though soon afterward he’s still forced to find last-minute accommodations on the Orient Express. There’s a murder, of course, and a cast of characters I can’t tell you anything about. Either you already know them all, and have no need to hear it again, or you’re one of a relatively small group of people who don’t already know the story and I don’t want to spoil anything for you.
For those who only have a passing familiarity with Hercule Poirot’s adventures, this latest incarnation of “Murder” offers a classical take on the now familiar “eccentric, brilliant detective solves impossible crime” genre. Though the movie’s been carefully fleshed out and smartly updated – in sensibilities, not in time period – it still has the classic Agatha Christie feel that has never quite been duplicated by modern detective TV shows. More importantly, this version maintains the novel’s touchingly humanist spin on the concept, along with a sense of depth that modern detective shows sometimes lack.
For those who have read the novel, or seen a previous version of the movie, this is a solid adaptation. A bit more action has been added to the story, all of it carefully in line with the plot and tone, and a small plot tweak has made the ending slightly more emotional. The race of some of the characters has been tweaked, a fact that is reflected in the story and increases some of the suspicion early on, and two characters have been folded into one efficiently enough that it changes almost nothing. The visuals are quite gorgeous for a whodunit, both in Jerusalem and on the snowy mountain where much of the story is set.
Though die-hard fans of one of the previous Poirots will undoubtedly argue with Branagh’s version of the detective (though they’d argue with any version who wasn’t their own), he proved to be delightful company. Though Branagh has added flourishes to the backstory that don’t seem to have any basis in previous canon and perhaps weren’t entirely necessary (though they were probably added to soften the character), his performance is nicely precise, thoughtfully serious, and does a wonderful job at capturing Poirot’s surprisingly hilarious blunt almost-sarcasm that makes him such an entertaining guide.
If you’re a fan of the genre, or think you might be a fan of the genre, then definitely give this “Orient Express” a try. It’s worth the ride.