It’s 1934 and a disparate cast of characters are traveling by train from Istanbul to Paris, among them famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). After the train is stopped by a rockslide on the tracks during a snowstorm, a fellow passenger, the shady Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is found stabbed to death in his locked compartment, and Poirot is presented with the challenge of divining who the killer is. The truth is, of course, much stranger than he could anticipate.
Agatha Christie’s classic novel was famously filmed by Sidney Lumet back in ’74, and it’s kind of incredible that it has taken this long for another big screen version to be mounted. It’s a nigh-perfect basis for a film, offering a clear narrative goal, an interesting location, and – most importantly – a panoply of intriguing and eccentric roles just begging to be brought to life by a talented company of character actors.
Which is exactly what we get here, although the line between “character actor”, “rising star” and “dear God, it’s Johnny Depp” is blurry. What we do get is (deep breath) Michell Pfeiffer as a husband-hunting American widow, Judi Dench as an imperious Russian princess, Olivia Colman as her long-suffering maid, Josh Gad as the alcoholic secretary to the murdered man, Derek Jacobi as the victim’s valet, Penelope Cruz as a devout missionary, Daisy Ridley as a governess, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Leslie Odom Jr. as a doctor, and more. They’re all uniformly great (yes, even Depp), and are clearly having a ball, embracing director Branagh’s heightened, theatrical take on the material.
Branagh is, of course, Poirot, and why not? He is, after all, the director’s favourite actor. If everyone present is having fun, Branagh is having the most fun as Christie’s famous and fastidious flatfoot, sporting one of the greatest mustaches in cinematic history giving full play to Poirot’s suite of tics and quirks. It’s such a great role, and Branagh manages the rather neat balancing act of making Poirot brilliant and heroic but at the same time fussy and funny, a strange little man driven to try and correct a world made imperfect by crime and carelessness.
As a director, Branagh revels in the sumptuous details and textures of his setting – the polished brass and rich, dark wood of the train carriages, gleaming in the lamplight; the clean, blinding white drifts of snow outside; the luxurious fabrics of the costumes; the hair, the make up and accessories of his characters. It’s the James Bond model in microcosm, cinema as luxury tourism, showing us an aspirational world we can’t really afford to visit except for a couple of hours at a time. Branagh also doesn’t let the location limit him too much in terms of his camerawork – our point of view is always on the move, tracking down carriages, swooping overhead, pushing in to highlight tangible details. Orient Express is absolutely worth catching on theatrical release; while it may not fit the current tentpole model, it is a timely reminder that it’s not just explosions and spectacle that benefit from the cinema.
Plus, it’s a really good time. For all that it deals with murder and (slight spoiler from an 80 year old book) conspiracy, there’s something quite cosy and comforting in Christie’s story, and that translates perfectly here. The solution to the mystery is pretty well known by this stage of the game, but we don’t necessarily go to these things to be surprised, any more than we go to see Hamlet expecting to be scared by the ghost of the King. Rather, the joy is in seeing how these familiar narrative forms are being re-interpreted by a new set of creatives. Branagh never colours outside of the lines on this one, and that’s fine – this is a respectful romp through one of literature’s most famous mysteries, and well worth your time.