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With: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison
Written by: Michael Green, based on a novel by Agatha Christie
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Running Time: 114
Date: 11/10/2017
IMDB

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Christie Cream

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the new Murder on the Orient Express, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters, Agatha Christie's beloved Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) can be seen thoroughly enjoying a Charles Dickens novel before he's interrupted with the nasty business of a murder.

It's appropriate. Branagh is as classical as any director working today, able to dip into a wealth of literary treasures ranging from Shakespeare and Mary Shelley to Cinderella and Thor, and bringing freshness and energy to all of it.

He's also one of the best actor-directors working today, and his wearing of two hats on Murder on the Orient Express recalls his exuberant work on Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996), as well as on the nifty little crime film that was his sophomore effort, Dead Again (1991).

The only other big screen Murder on the Orient Express — directed by Sidney Lumet in 1974 — featured Albert Finney as a finicky Poirot, and Branagh — with his world-class mustache — easily equals him here.

This Poirot is painfully aware of his shortcomings, of how ill-fit he is to mingle with others. When alone, he sometimes tragically consults a photo of a lost love.

He's exhausted, and after solving a crime in Jerusalem (involving a priest, a rabbi, and an imam), he wants nothing more than a vacation.

Unfortunately, he is called back to London and must board the Orient Express. There, he meets a sinister, scar-faced "businessman," Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who claims that he is in danger and asks for Poirot's protection. Poirot declines.

Next thing, Ratchett is dead, murdered, and the train is full of suspects: Ratchett's secretary (Josh Gad), his valet (Derek Jacobi), a society lady (Michelle Pfeiffer), a princess (Judi Dench), a professor (Willem Dafoe), a governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), and a missionary (Penelope Cruz) among them.

Like Lumet's film, Branagh is not so much focused on suspense or thrills, attempting instead to get behind the human aspects of this crime.

The skillful camerawork does not use the cramped, limited settings to build claustrophobia or paranoia. Rather, his camera glides alongside the train and peers through windows, or floats overhead, giving actors room to move in the corridors.

The movie even finds wide, establishing shots to assemble the suspects into a single, inseparable group. The striking denouncement scene takes place at the mouth of a train tunnel lit by flaming torches.

Mostly, the bright, fluid, elegant Murder on the Orient Express seems refreshingly smart and old-fashioned, like an export from the old studio days of Hollywood.

Even the screenwriter, Michael Green, has proven adept at brushing off and freshening up old characters, as he did in this year's Logan and Blade Runner 2049.

Today's short-attention-span viewers may find Murder on the Orient Express irrelevant, but for the rest, it's a fine, diverting entertainment in all the best ways.

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