It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.
After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.
Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!
Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.
In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.