Adapted from Agatha Christie's crime novel (1934), Kenneth Branagh (“Cinderella,” "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"), “Thor”) directs and stars in this plush production, “Murder at the Orient Express, as the famed detective Hercule Poirot.
After solving a case of a missing sacred relic in Jerusalem with a rabbi, a priest and an imam as the accused, as delightfully demonstrated to an astonished crowd, the detective boards a train in Istanbul to London for a break. The Orient Express.
Aside from the crew where the train conductor (Marwan Kenzari) is most prominent, the luxury train is sparse with only 13 other passengers aboard. The international passengers are princess (Judy Dench, “Skyfall”), maid (Olivia Coleman), count (Sergei Polunin), countess (Lucy Boynton), governess (Daisy Ridley), widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), missionary (Penelope Cruz, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”), doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), professor (Willem Dafoe), car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Raflo), valet (Derek Jacobi), assistant (Josh Gad, “Beauty and the Beast”) and businessman (Johnny Depp, “The Tourist”).
The three-day trip was meant to be relaxing, alas, trouble follows. A passenger is found dead. Murdered, as a matter of fact. To top it off, the train is derailed by an avalanche and they are all stranded. Chill fills the air and it's not just because of the wintry weather. It's up to the detective to solve the case, using his keen eye of observations, investigating each passenger and uncovering any motivation or connection. Hopefully, everyone remains alive until they are rescued. As it turns out, the passengers may not be who they say they are.
What stands out the most is not the acting, even with a starry and stylish cast. The cinematography is the star of the movie. It's captivating from start to finish. The warmth and hustle and bustle of the daily life in the era permeate the opening scenes, against the backdrop of ancient stone walls, steamboats and vintage trains. Then onto the snowy journey across moonlit mountains and sun-kissed plains, ending at sunset. Fine fashion and design are abound. Immaculately dressed travelers, crisp linens and polished mahogany. The movie is stunningly shot with creative angles and details and lavishly lit. The way the deceased is first shown to the audience is unconventionally filmed.
If you've never read the novel or seen the original film, the reveal's shock value is high. Hercule Poirot, quite possibly the greatest detective of his time, is a man of law and order who values justice and balance. In the end, he's forced to examine his principles. Perhaps there's a situation where imbalance in life is necessary or that peace is more important than justice.
The dots are not always connecting clearly when they are rolling rapidly, and while suspension of disbelief is needed for this whodunnit tale, “Murder at the Orient Express” is a well-crafted, old-fashioned and modish murder mystery with a fantastic twist.