Blu-ray Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Agatha Christie's 1934 classic get the deluxe, big budget treatment in Murder on the Orient Express. Kenneth Branagh does double-duty as director and star, playing the elaborately mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot. Self-proclaimed to be "probably the greatest detective in the world," Poirot is a last-minute passenger on the Orient Express train. A murder is committed and the task of uncovering the perpetrator falls on Poirot's shoulders.

Apparently the twist ending to Orient Express is viewed as pop culture common knowledge, not unlike the endings of say, Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green. Speaking for myself personally, I managed to reach middle age without ever being clued in. So I approached Branagh's film as fresh as possible. Thanks to impeccable production design, a truly fine cast, and deliberate (but suitable) pacing, the whole thing works like gangbusters. Again, if you don't know the solution to the whodunit, that is.

Branagh imbues his serious portrayal of the meticulous Detective Poirot, a true blue believer in the concept of intrinsic right and wrong, with a glint of wry humor. Poirot is approached by sleazy/charming Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) for personal protection as he believes he has an enemy aboard the train who wants him dead. Poirot, sharing a fancy dessert with the businessman, declines a "generous" monetary offer. He's a detective, not a bodyguard. It's no spoiler to reveal that Ratchett indeed turns up dead, hence the story's title. Depp's screen time, therefore, amounts to little more than an extended cameo.

As Poirot begins interrogating the passengers (including Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and Josh Gad), the potential pitfall facing Branagh as director is keeping the claustrophobic setting interesting. To this end, Branagh experiments with odd angles and unexpected framing in order to make the most of a minimalist set. Since the train is partially derailed by an avalanche, the passengers mill about outside (strangely unaffected by what appears to be frigid temps). Essentially, Branagh takes material probably best-suited for the page, but manages to make it as visually arresting as possible.

Your mileage, of course, may vary greatly depending on your relationship to the material. I've not seen the 1974 film, directed by Sydney Lumet, which received six Oscar nominations (with Ingrid Bergman winning for Best Supporting Actress). I suppose one is at a major disadvantage when attempting to assess a film based on a famous book, one that already has a critically-acclaimed movie adaptation (apparently, Agatha Christie herself—the toughest of critics of film adaptations of her work—was generally pleased with the '74 version), without any prior knowledge. Then again, it allows for unbiased viewing. The new Murder On the Orient Express didn't exactly bowl over the critics, but it's a terrifically-crafted murder mystery. And listen carefully at the end for a hint that there might be another Branagh-led Poirot adventure in the future.

The Blu-ray edition by 20th Century Fox contains quite a few interesting special features: deleted scenes, commentary by Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green, and an array of featurettes. There's a 20 minute biographical feature, "Agatha Christie: An Intimate Portrait," the three-part "Unusual Suspects," the 15-minute "All Aboard: Filming Murder on the Orient Express, and a few other minor segments.

Murder on the Orient Express feels a bit like something from an earlier era, and not just because of the 1930s setting. It is admittedly a bit staid. But patient, attentive viewers will be rewarded.

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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