PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The fondly recalled original version of Murder on the Orient Express, directed in 1974 by Sidney Lumet, combined the cerebral puzzle-solving entertainment of a mystery novel by Agatha Christie with the star-gazing pleasures of a celebrity ensemble.
Six Oscar nominations and an Oscar ensued.
The reboot, directed by Kenneth Branagh and scripted by Michael Green, offers Branagh as legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, played in the original by Oscar nominee Albert Finney.
But what both versions share is author Christie’s diabolically clever whodunit plot, visual elegance, and a trainload of familiar screen luminaries.
Where then there were Richard Widmark, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sir John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Martin Balsam, Vanessa Redgrave, and Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman, now there are Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, and Willem Dafoe.
They comprise the 1930s passenger list on the Europe-crossing titular train traveling from Istanbul to Calais.
And when somebody turns up dead and the train is rendered snowbound, Poirot must use his “leedle gray cells” to conduct a criminal investigation through a series of interrogations to determine which of the 13 passengers – suspects all – has submitted the victim to a gruesome, extravagant, murderous stabbing.
Even if you’ve read the 1934 detective novel or seen the earlier version and thus know the solution to the mystery, Christie’s ingeniousness carries the day. In other words, even if you know who done it in this whodunit, there are escapist pleasures to be had.
Four-time Oscar nominee Branagh, wearing a mustache the size of a locomotive and having fun playing the colorful, idiosyncratic Poirot and directing for a fifteenth time (Cinderella, Macbeth, Thor, Sleuth, As You Like It, Hamlet, Dead Again), keeps things zipping along and time flying.
And gives his leading man – that is, himself – such a generous number of lingering closeups that some among his prestigious supporting ensemble are severely underemployed.
With no particular antagonist pitted against Poirot, suspense and emotional involvement are pretty much off the table.
But Branagh seems to know that his ace in the hole is Christie’s sturdy, cognitive source material so, in every way but a focus on that distracting mustache, he more or less stays out-of-the-way.
And he unapologetically embraces generic convention. So, yes, Poirot does eventually gather all the suspects on this lavish train ride for the big reveal, which delivers a conceit that pays off nicely even if you see it coming.
So we’ll train 3 stars out of 4 for the enjoyably old-fashioned homicide mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, a dark, glossy lark in which Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot uses his impressive powers of deduction to determine what might be called the loco motive.