Stunning Visuals Highlight an Otherwise Dull ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

A classic whodunnit gets the remake treatment courtesy of Kenneth Branagh and an all-star cast. Based on the 1934 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, “Murder on the Orient Express” was first adapted for film by none other than  Sidney Lumet in 1974. Branagh steps into Lumet’s shoes here, putting some new touches on a film that evokes old-fashioned glamour while exploring some intense themes, such as when is it ever justified to take a human life and if the punishment should always fit the crime.

Branagh himself plays Hercule Poirot, a world-famous Belgian detective who never misses a detail, in part thanks to his ODC. There’s set-up in the beginning in Jerusalem to establish that the meticulous Poirot is the real deal and nothing gets past him. Branagh takes his time getting the story on track, literally, but once the detective’s journey the Orient Express begins in Istanbul, we meet the cast of characters who will eventually becomes suspects, including Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), a nanny who seems to be close to the dapper Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), who is an African-British man in this version, adding a forbidden air to their relationship. Arbuthnot’s race creates tension between him and Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), a stuffy Austrian who holds views that are offensive even by 1934 standards. There’s also Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a wealthy society woman on the hunt for a new husband, Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz) a dour former nurse and born-again Christian, the regal Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), her lady’s maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) and Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), a countess who prefers to sleep away her days and spend her waking hours in a drug-induced stupor.

Johnny Depp co-stars as the odious Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a gangster of sorts whose shady dealing has landed him in some hot water. Things get heated after Poirot refuses to help guard him against some men that are now after him, showing his integrity by standing his ground even after Ratchett pulls a gun on him. Josh Gad rounds out the main cast as Ratchett’s right-hand man Hector MacQueen. After Ratchett turns up dead in his bed with 14 stab wounds, no tears are shed, but a murder is a murder, and Poirot gets to work interviewing the suspects. It soon comes to light that the deceased was the man behind a Lindbergh-style botched kidnapping that had repercussions that led to several deaths. With the train conveniently stranded, Poirot gets to know the other passengers and they each other pretty quickly, though not intimately enough, as the viewer leaves the theater wondering about certain plot holes, as they don’t see as much Poirot’s genius mind at work as they do Branagh being hokey. “I’m the best detective in the world,” declares Poirot with a straight face at one point to a train car full of passengers, but sometimes it’s better to show rather than tell.

Pfeiffer, who recently made ripples with her performance in “Mother!” after a period of laying low, impresses here as well, playing a character who at first glance seems very one note, but ends up stealing the show in an emotional climactic scene. Another highlight of this version of the film is the cinematography, as the film, which mostly takes place on the ornate train stranded in a winter wonderland, was shot on 65mm. This, along with the beautiful period costumes, make this a visual feast for the eyes. This would be a reason to check out this “Murder on the Orient Express” on the big screen. Otherwise, film lovers are better off just checking out Lumet’s version from their local library.

Murder on the Orient Express” opens Nov. 10 nationwide.