Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh keeps Agatha Christie's detective tale on the right track as both director and lead amidst a cast bristling with star power

In the annals of cinematic moustaches, a number have truly stood out. John Neville’s whiskers decorated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, while Daniel Day Lewis rode his towards fortune, lunacy and an Oscar for There Will Be Blood. Clarke Gable (Gone with the Wind) and Sam Elliot (The Big Lebowski) both made solid plays for posterity, of course, and anything Tom Selleck has ever appeared in is largely remembered for the hair sprouting from his upper lip.

It is possible, however, that the bar has been reset with the arrival of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, the Belgian sleuth conjured from the imagination of mystery maven Agatha Christie. Played with particular élan by David Suchet during his 70-episode run on ITV, Poirot’s latest big-screen outing, Murder on the Orient Express, is garnished by a moustache of quite magnificent scope, vigour and daring. Like a mighty grey wave rippling across his face, this effort can't be undersold. 

Poirot’s appearance is, fortunately, far from the film’s only distinguishing mark. This is a pleasingly rendered slow-burning thriller, which benefits as much from its regard for vintage Hollywood tropes as it does from the sure hand at the controls. Both director and star, Branagh’s gifts in the two disciplines are on show as he marshals a cast bristling with star power, becalming them in snow drifts and creeping suspicion.

Orient Express is the first Poirot feature since 1988 and the fourth adaptation of this particular tale. In it, the world-famous detective, finds himself travelling at short notice on the titular locomotive with a coterie of colourful characters: including corrupt art dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp); Ratchett's flunkey, MacQueen (Josh Gad), and valet, Masterman (Derek Jacobi); Teutonic academic Hardman (Willem Dafoe); fading siren Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); sober missionary Estravados (Penélope Cruz); haughty aristocrat Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench); watchful governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); fragile Russian count Andrenyi (Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin); and black English doctor Arbuthnot (Broadway fixture Leslie Odom Jr.).

When one of the passengers approaches Poirot to engage the great man as a bodyguard, he refuses, only to see an inexplicable murder, and an avalanche in the Yugoslavian mountains, waylay the Express. Having been begged for help by his friend, the service’s dissolute overseer, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot resolves to divine the facts. 

Style wise, Orient Express boasts reassuring confidence and while its plot is well worn, Branagh imbues his picture with fresh impetus. He remains a superb film-maker, as comfortable with mega-budget mainstream fare (ThorJack Ryan: Shadow RecruitCinderella) as he is staging Shakespeare.

He revels in the 1930s milieu envisioned by Christie and moulds a world laced with intrigue and elegance. The sets make bold statements of old-world luxury and class, paeans to the art deco sensibilities of a lost, gilded age.

The framing is just as accomplished. One early exterior tracking shot watches Poirot as he progresses through the carriages, avoiding, entertaining and observing his fellow travellers as he goes. Later, with only the actors’ voices and body language to convey horror or surprise, the discovery of an unseen corpse is viewed entirely from above in the narrow confines of a plush gangway. Before the end, when the identity of the malefactor slides into view, Poirot is confronted by a line-up of suspects seated before him, arranged as if in a tableau, the last supper of truth and justice.

As with Cinderella, regular Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography soars. From its rich colour scheme – dazzling flourishes and sunsets meld with warm, oak-panelled hues and wintry shades – to an occasionally epic sense of scale, Orient Express’s complex riddle is painted on a genuinely beautiful canvas. As compelling as the central quandary might be, the glorious vistas of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Europe’s eastern reaches, remind us of the silver screen’s ability to transport its viewers to destinations far beyond their own borders.

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In the lead, Branagh is impossible to dislike. His iteration of Poirot constitutes a man of depth and contradictions. So extreme a perfectionist that he would rather two shoes be soiled by manure than one alone, his faintly comic air is propped up by unbending politeness and natty sartorial grace. This urbane, worldly multi-linguist spends his time giggling at the musings of Dickens and flitting between continental destinations, savouring local culture along the way.

However, beneath that serene veneer lie nerves of steel and unimpeachable morals, attributes that come increasingly to the fore in the latter stages, as the initially frivolous atmosphere gives way to something darker. Poirot’s razor-edged intellect is stretched to breaking point in pursuit of answers that lie somewhere in the dusting of clues sprinkled throughout but it is his soul, and the idea of himself, that ultimately requires attention.

Far from flawless, Orient Express arguably ends too soon and even imposes a vacuous, clumsy lost romance on its hero. The latter element is particularly silly, reducing Poirot to someone who seeks guidance from old photographs of people none of us know. The cast, too, sees its individual arcs unevenly served. Not one person is weak, indeed most are as watchable as one would imagine (Jacobi, in particular, excels) but a lean running time and dense narrative leave little room for memorable moments. 

Nevertheless, there is a great deal here to savour. Be it the stunning backdrops or the powerful final reveal, these strands utterly fail to disappoint. In truth, with Branagh as conductor, this train keeps to the right track.

Murder on the Orient Express is now on general release in cinemas.