‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is far from a train wreck

Nate Day

12 people stand on a train in the 1930s.
Image courtesy of 20th Century FOX

Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” has been a massively famous story since its publication in 1934. It has very successfully been adapted to film, television and stage over the last several decades, and Keneth Branagh’s latest film adaptation is no exception to that trend.

A period piece, the film offers the opportunity to indulge in the lavish luxury of the 1930s in Europe, and the cinematography certainly delivers. It’s easily one of the most beautiful and visually striking films of the year, going far beyond what’s offered in films like “Beauty and the Beast” or “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” While some shots are obviously computer generated, their jaw-dropping beauty makes it easy to forget.

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The cast of the film pulls out all of the stops. With an all-star cast–as is the tradition for Christie’s murder-mystery movies–the film allows many award-winning artists to flex their dramatic muscles. Many critics have complained about the lack of screen time for megastars like Dame Judi Dench or Penelope Cruz, but what such critics ignore is the power behind their small performances.

Judi Dench spends very little time on screen, but her biggest scene ensured that tears were in everyone’s eyes. Additionally, “Murder on the Orient Express” allows relative newcomers like Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. a chance to shine, as well as the opportunity to prove that being a character actor doesn’t mean that you aren’t extremely talented as well.

Johnny Depp makes an appearance as an abusive, entitled, murderous gangster, perhaps not too far off from the actor’s own character. Michelle Pfeiffer plays a key role in the film, transforming herself miraculously to play one of Agatha Christie’s best written and most famous characters. Interestingly, Pfeiffer also sings a heartbreaking ballad on the film’s soundtrack.

Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the movie, stars as Hercule Poirot, who refers to himself as “probably the greatest detective in the world.” Branagh and his over-the-top mustache offer a performance that is right off of Christie’s pages, capturing the essence of the character and modernizing him through a lense of moral rediscovery and allows him to grow throughout the film, something the 1974 version of the film leaves out entirely. Branagh and his screenwriters added a great deal of excitement to the story as well, making the film more enticing and suspenseful, all without sacrificing the gravity and maturity of the story. 

Another interesting addition to the film was the multicultural cast. The original was stuffed to the gills with white actors, and this one featured several actors of color. Aside from adding a better representation of the population of Europe to the film, this decision allowed for several overt commentaries to be made on racism and sexism, making those that subscribe to those beliefs look like monsters, and reminding audiences that regardless of race or gender, we’re all human at heart.

Should you watch it?: Yes

The film was miraculously timed. Our nation having been through multiple massive tragedies lately, citizens are left wondering if there is enough good in the world, as well as trying to navigate right and wrong. The film centers in Branagh’s character finding that morality isn’t exactly black and white and that the world is actually full of good, loving people; a message that we could all benefit from at this point.

Nate Day can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter  @NateMDay.