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Murder on the Orient Express [4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Download] 
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Murder mystery based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie starring Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench. When notorious gangster Ratchett (Depp) is murdered on a luxurious train ride through Europe, Detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) must solve the case before another victim is claimed by one of the 13 mysterious passengers on board. Among the suspects are Princess Dragomiroff (Dench), Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), a devout missionary, and Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), an American widow. Can Poirot identify the killer before another life is taken?
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In isolating the suspects to the cohort of first class passengers, he interviews each of them to find out whodunnit. However, each person he speaks to happens to be, rather inconveniently, being imprecise with the truth.
Kenneth Branagh, that blonde, sometime dreamboat who’s good looks led to him being cast as Guildery Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is somewhat counter-intuitive casting as the short and portly Belgian Poirot, but Branagh is the director, so we’ll chalk this unorthodox casting decision down to that same streak of actor/director vanity that plighted Denzel Washington in Fences. To Branagh’s credit, he captures Poirot’s mannerisms and quirks well, and after a while, his physical disparity between the literary character begins to evaporate.
Being such an ensemble piece, Murder on the Orient Express is unable to give any of the murder suspects time to breathe. There’s an eye-watering European cast littered about the film, with some American additions. The character who caught my eye the most was Ratchett’s secretary McQueen, played by Josh Gad (aka Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast). Gad is very good at sporting a chummy veneer, and he layers this effectively in Murder on the Orient Express with the insinuation of hiding something beneath that.
The rest of the cast are mostly underused. Dame Judi Dench plays a Russian princess, and whilst her accent is perfectly serviceable, the brief glimpses of her character’s hauteur in the snooty looks she shoots Poirot were far too short-lived.
Similarly, Penélope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer tantalise with fleeting displays of their inimitable talents, but sadly, their characterisations (of a religious zealot and an alluring but somewhat fraught husband-seeker, respectively) are lost in the melange of players. Daisy Ridley, whilst very pretty and always having a nice screen presence, sadly fluffs some of her line-readings. The ‘I like rose’ line required far more gravitas. But, this is more the fault of the dense nature of the film and its many suspects, than the actress herself.
The worst performer in the ensemble, however, has to go to Johnny Depp. The character of Ratchett needed some sketchiness, which we all know he’s capable of delivering. It would be any actor’s dream, to portray a dislikeable felon, and make such an impact before his murder, that his presence is missed for the rest of the movie. Sadly, Depp passes up this golden opportunity, instead reciting his lines with such apathy, you’d think the only reason he wandered onto set was to pick up his paycheque.
Despite the mixed bag of the cast, such is the excellence of the venerable Agatha Christie book from which it is based, that Murder on the Orient Express plays well. There are some tart one-liners sprinkled in the film, which provide some much-neeed levity from the mystery. The poignant moments certainly pack an emotional punch (Patrick Doyle’s intelligent but unashamedly heart-pulling score helps), and there’s an element of insincerity to what every character says to Poirot, that we are totally willing him to solve the mystery.
Not groundbreaking cinema, then, and nor is it the best big-screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, but in terms of sheer entertainment, you could do worse (you'll have to get over the rather brazen product placement from Godiva chocolates, mind). Especially if you don’t know how it will go – the twist will dazzle you.
I confidently predicted a bit of a turkey. After all, various critics had pointed to a confusing third act. And even I spotted several character/narrative inconsistencies. At the quayside, Mary Debenham would have avoided Poirot like the plague rather than enthusiastically engaging him in conversation; the strictly non-French speaking Ratchett’s supposed exclamation “C’est rien” is an important clue and yet it goes unremarked on by Poirot; and although Poirot refers to Hildegarde Schmidt as a cook, this is not established earlier, thereby stripping it of its value as an important clue. And then there’s the small matter of a boat apparently departing from a very landlocked Jerusalem heading for Istanbul. And there are guns in this one - several.
But I was wrong. In my amateur view, compared to the 1974 Albert Finney film and the 2010 David Suchet version, this is a considerably different take on Agatha Christie’s fabulous 1934 novel - just as good, and maybe better. First of all, the production design is both Lalique-exquisite as well as locomotive brutal. The locations are well drawn, the train is superb, the snow drift terrifying and the dining, Michelin starred.
In the end, Kenneth Branagh is a less stylised Poirot than we’re used to and in a lengthy, if convoluted, third act reveals his vulnerability as he struggles to balance the scales of justice. Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs Hubbard is every bit as good as Lauren Bacall, and Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi and Johnny Depp as Ratchett give powerful nuanced performances. Willem Dafoe and Olivia Colman don’t get much of a look-in which is a pity as both are fine actors. There are several younger actors who also don’t get much of a chance. This really is Kenneth Branagh’s film - he utterly dominates screen time.
The music and cinematography (neat tracking and overhead shots) are superb and the CGI and post production is convincing - we really feel that we are with them, swaying with the rhythms of their train.
But, for me, the true distinguishing feature of this film is that vexed and protracted third act. Aside from criticisms of Poirot’s less than clear description of how he arrived at his two solutions, we get a horribly poignant sense of the suffering in the Armstrong household. My sense that some of the characters were less than well established earlier in the film, were swept away towards the end as we learn about their individual sufferings.
This version convinced me more than ever of the genius of Agatha Christie’s writing. Branagh has added new scenes not in the original novel which, with the exception of the last supper scene (I won’t spoil it for you), don’t add anything to the clarity of character and narrative exposition; and, arguably, get in the way of it.
Finally, there’s a lovely little exchange at Brod railway station where we learn that there’s been a murder in Egypt that urgently requires Poirot’s services. A Branagh-as-Poirot ‘Death on the Nile’ could be on the cards! 2 hours. A magnificent 5 stars from me
I was a bit underwhelmed at the end in spite of the good acting throughout.
I don't think I'd be buying the disc even in 4K am afraid.
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