Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” shimmers off the screen, a film that luxuriates in luxury. It has scale and detail, “Zhivago” lush in every frame, care in every dazzling and perfectly appointed camera angle.
We may have forgotten that people used to compare Branagh, with his love of Shakespeare and flair for camera technique, with Orson Welles. Here’s an eye-popping reminder that the director of “Henry V” and “Thor” knows how to have fun with an Agatha Christie whodunit.
But silly? Old fashioned? Oh my, yes. From its stock characters, who reveal everything we need to know about them in a perfectly-coiffed and costumed look, to the epic melodramatic flourishes that curl through the picture like hero detective Hercule Poirot’s immaculate mustache, rest assured that here is that holiday movie you can take mom — and grandmom — to on Thanksgiving.
Branagh plays Poirot like a fine Christmas ham, from Smithfield by way of Brussels.
“Forgive me, I am Bel-JEE-un,” he purrs, correcting everyone who mispronounces his first-name. No, not Hercules.
“Err-CULE Poirot. I do not SLAY the lions.”
He sees all, but he isn’t just some human databank like Sherlock Holmes. “I can only see the world as it should be.” Anything else stands out, imperfection — alteration — those add up to clues.
The film opens in delight and wonder as Poirot puts on a quick show at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. A rabbi, an imam and a priest are accused of a theft, and “only the (self-described) greatest detective in the world” can crack the case (and the groaning joke about those three) in an instant and placate the city’s quarreling religious factions with his solution.
He’s off to Istanbul, soaking up the pastries and great kitchens of the finest hotels that 1934 has to offer. Then, his scoundrel of a young friend (Tom Bateman) secures him a place on the world’s most exclusive train — the Orient Express. The ever-“exhausted” Poirot can restfully ride the rails through the Balkans, Austria and France in style with a crowd of only the best sorts of people.
Well, not exactly.
An American “art dealer” who fears for his life (Johnny Depp, scarred and Capone-ish) tries to hire Poirot for protection. Poirot demurs, and the aptly-named Ratchett turns up dead in his sleeper car.
Who did it? His private secretary (Josh Gad), valet (Branagh’s good-luck charm, Derek Jacobi), the governess (Daisy Ridley of “Star Wars”) or her doctor/lover (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or was it the racist Austrian engineer (Willem Dafoe), the aging, oft-married socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer), the pious but two-fisted missionary (Penelope Cruz), the Russian princess (Judi Dench), the Latin chauffeur (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the hotheaded dancer/count (Sergei Polunin)?
Branagh, to his credit, doesn’t force us to mull over the possibilities. He runs us past them at a near gallop, dealing with each necessary interrogation scene briskly, with witty banter and extreme close-ups glossing over the cliched “My life story” semi-confessions.
Everybody lies, everybody has a secret and intrigue piles upon intrigue, with the odd bit of flirting, even though Poirot knows “ROMANCE nev-airrrrr goes un-PUNISHED.”
The ending is laugh-out-loud ludicrous, and the stops (the train gets snowbound — imagine that) dictated by a very old formula.
But it is the stylish journey, mon amis, that matters , not the destination.
The players, to a one, play this as the lark it is, with Pfeiffer, Gad, Jacobi and Cruz standing out. Branagh, the rake, lets his camera develop a crush on Ridley.
But if Sir Kenneth doesn’t make you laugh as your plummy tour guide through all this coincidence, melodrama and holiday ham, turn to mom. She’s the one who’ll get the hoary archetypes from the day when literature, at least, gave us celebrity detectives. She’s the one who’ll appreciate crime-solving braggadocio, Agatha Christie-style.
“Eef it were EAS-ee, I would not be FA-mous!”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi
Credits:Directed by Kenneth Branagh script by Michael Green, based on the Agatha Christie novel. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 1:54