Murder on the Orient Express brings whodunnits back from the dead

These days you can’t move for crime dramas, so it’s surprising to note how rare the classic murder mystery has become. Sherlock is less interested in solving a mystery than executing rug-pulls and shock twists. The likes of Luther and The Snowman are basically grotesque action thrillers in which women are horribly butchered. True Detective is an esoteric character drama with an occult-tinged mystery at its core. Scandi-noir hits such as The Killing and The Bridge use a shocking crime to pick at social issues. And shows such as The Fall and the current glut of true-crime docudramas ditch the whodunnit in favour of why-he-done-it, sketching gripping psychological portraits of the murderer.

All of which means there’s a refreshing simplicity to Kenneth Branagh’s new take on the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. A man (Johnny Depp in lascivious form) is murdered in his cabin while the opulent train of the title is snowbound up a mountain. Someone on the train killed him and it’s down to the fastidious, slightly OCD Belgian detective Poirot (Branagh) to decide who.

 

 

It’s at this point that the apparent limitations of the format become clear. Your classic murder mystery tends to involve a lot of people standing around in rooms professing their innocence. Putting said rooms aboard the Orient Express brings a certain glamour, but the script works hard to keep things rattling along even when nobody is going anywhere fast.

While cinematic spectacle comes from the addition of an exotic prologue, with Poirot solving a cross-denominational crime by Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, and a daring chase across a railway bridge, Branagh’s real triumph is to make the less spectacular elements as gripping as the occasional moments of action.

Poirot isn’t exactly Indiana Jones, but there’s more than a whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark here. Just as Raiders resuscitated the adventure serials of the 1930s, Murder takes a firm but affectionate hand to a forgotten genre, shaking it up for a new age.

 

Kenneth Branagh stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Kenneth Branagh stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

It probably helps that this is a mystery that isn’t quite what it seems, beyond the expected red-herrings and reversals. There is a self-aware quality to the tale that befits the twenty-first century, even as it revels in its 1940s setting. This allows Branagh to indulge his cast of stereotypes, while still digging for more depth than existed in the original text.

His Poirot is the most obvious example of this, a famous detective whose clear cut and thoroughly ordered worldview is rocked by the true nature of the murder. It’s a nuanced, intelligent and deliciously comic performance (shades of Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel) which somehow manages to be even more charismatic than his extraordinary moustache.

 

Michelle Pfeiffer stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Michelle Pfeiffer stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

 

The familiar trappings of the format aside, the real joy here is the relish with which the starry supporting cast devour their parts. As the apparent heroine, Daisy Ridley proves herself the greatest Star Wars discovery since Carrie Fisher, while Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Willem Dafoe take delightful character turns. But the true standout is Michelle Pfeiffer, by turns brash, sultry and cunning. Let’s hope this, along with mother!, marks the start of new and prolific stage of her career.

Simple but surprising, gleefully old-fashioned yet bursting with modern verve, Murder on the Orient Express is perfect festive fare, likely to appeal to parents and (older) offspring alike.

It’s very much the sort of film you can imagine the whole family pleasurably dozing off in front of after an indulgent Christmas lunch. Which isn’t to suggest the film is ever dull, more that it’s the cinematic equivalent of your favourite chair.  Even in the world of crime, there is room for that kind of cosiness.

Here’s hoping that a new Poirot film soon becomes a Yuletide tradition.

Murder on the Orient Express

     ★★★★

 

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