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“Murder on the Orient Express” is an all star whodunit

Another week, another remake hits multiplexes. It’s hard to argue against the fact that a new version of Murder on the Orient Express is supremely unnecessary. That’s just something we need to accept about Hollywood. Necessity there is not the mother of invention. At least in the case of this remake of the Agatha Christie whodunit, there’s an effort being made to make it look rather handsome. Under the stewardship of Kenneth Branagh, shot in glorious 70mm, this seems more like a creative lark for the team making the film than a quick cash grab. If nothing else, we have that to hold on to with this particular movie.

Based once again on Christie’s classic novel, the film follows renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) as he solves yet another seemingly unsolvable case. This time, he’s aboard a lavish train with thirteen other passengers, at least until one is found dead. With that, Poirot begins attempting to deduce which of the surviving dozen is behind the murder. As he works the case, the train is stuck in ice, potentially trapping them all with a killer. Soon, a crew will free the train and send it towards its destination. If Poirot hasn’t figured it out by then, the guilty party could get off. Fans of the book and previous films will know how this ends, obviously. Branagh directs an adaptation written by Michael Green. The passengers consist of Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Sergei Polunin, and Daisy Ridley. The score is from Patrick Doyle, while cinematography here is by Haris Zambarloukos.

This flick is a fairly sturdy rendering of the story, though it doesn’t bring much new to the table. Branagh’s performance is fairly broad, as are most of the supporting players, though Ridley turns in nice work (Pfeiffer chews the scenery nicely as well). Visually, the 70mm is nice, if unnecessary, while Green’s script is all around solid. It makes for the sort of movie that’s only occasionally a mess, sporadically entertaining, and completely devoid of a reason to exist. Branagh again gets to play with a large budget behind the camera, and that’s nice, but he seems to be getting further and further away from the films that established him as such a fine director. Frankly, anyone could have made this.

Awards wise, I don’t see much of a path for Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe on the technical front, but the majors are a real reach. Still, 20th Century Fox could launch an across the board campaign, seeking citations in Best Picture, Best Director (for Branagh), Best Actor (for Branagh as well), Best Supporting Actor (for Depp), Best Supporting Actress (for Pfeiffer and/or Ridley), Best Adapted Screenplay (for Green), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score, and Best Visual Effects. One or two of the techs might be in play, but everything else is a stretch, to say the least.

As a quick bonus, here are Branagh’s five best directorial outings to date:

5. Thor
4. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
3. Sleuth
2. Henry V
1. Hamlet

This weekend, audiences seeking out some major league star power can feast on this cast when Murder on the Orient Express opens. If you’re a fan of the cast, big on the source material, or have enjoyed previous versions, you might find something here to grab on to. Honestly though, the best audience for this film is anyone who’s never seen a previous incarnation of Murder on the Orient Express before. Then, it will all seem much newer and less by the numbers. It’s hardly a must see, that’s for sure, but it’s not a must miss either. It ends up in that murky in between, which is always a tough spot to be in. Alas…

Be sure to check out Murder on the Orient Express if you’re intrigued, in theaters everywhere on Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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