The beautiful romanticization of an era that in truth was only elegant for the well-to-do makes director Kenneth Branagh's version of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" a veritable feast for the eyes and imagination if not for the movie house detective in you.
Oh, there are wonderfully opulent appurtenances aboard the luxury train where famed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot plies his craft with genius, whimsy and a gallantry too often eclipsed by humankind's less noble instincts.
Starring an all-star cast to match the assemblage of beautiful people in Sidney Lumet's 1974 adaptation of Christie's 1935 mystery, this group is also outfitted in the most glamorous of finery. It is a rag trade aficionado's fantasy set in a reverie of rarified air, the click-clickity-clack of the lavish conveyance suggesting an ultimate destination someplace where the rich are additionally rewarded for having the good sense to be well heeled. It is artistic affirmation for the affluent, fantasy for the poor, and something to philosophize about for the bourgeoisie.
Witty performances by those playing the presumed strangers aboard the Orient Express further augment the entertaining portrait of time and place, all pigeonholed into convenient castes from which we can make judgments, prejudicial or not, concerning their culpability. They moan, they groan and try to make do when the train emanating from Istanbul derails following an avalanche in Eastern Europe. Never mind that almost everyone has somewhere important to get to, and soon. Only Poirot, seeking a tranquil hiatus, has no pressing engagement.
Of course, as is tradition for all those dedicated to unearthing the bad guys and in general making the world a safer place, no such rest is ever possible. In all the hubbub and snobbish repartee among haves, have-nots and pretenders-to-have, there has been a murder. But look at it from a positive point of view. Since no one has a laptop or iPhone to keep them busy while workmen from the closest town toil in the frigid weather to clear the snow and hopefully put the train back on the tracks, at least there's this bit of nastiness to help wile away the time.
Problem is, without committing heresy one cannot liberally change the structure of the famous whodunit to make it more of a challenge for armchair gumshoes who already know the gambit scripture and verse. As with any work that has achieved classic status, both screenwriter and director must tread carefully. A certain familiarity has to be maintained, and it is only in nuance, subtextual message and minor alterations to perhaps make a present-minded social statement where variation on the theme is acceptable.
Therefore, unless you're unfamiliar with all previous iterations and consequently unprejudiced by how the tale has been handled, the enjoyment lies in re-celebrating the work and deriving pleasure from particularly engaging aspects of the whole. Similar to how you might note, "I liked Olivier's Hamlet best," the well-traveled cineaste could knowledgably opine, "Kenneth Branagh's Poirot sure gives Albert Finney's rendition a run for the money," and probably be right.
Beyond that, any detail by detail comparison is more trivia than art appreciation. That said, Branagh does indeed imbue his supersleuth with that combination of egotistical confidence, style, grace, peerless virtue and an uncanny knack for near clairvoyant deduction. It is an entertainment in and of itself. We "ooh" and "ah" as if the Watson to his Holmes, tickled pink in awe as the mustachioed bloodhound regales us with the paths to his conclusions, all of it flourished in dizzying, Rube Goldberg of the mind description.
Combined with a peek into a lost love he shares only with us, Poirot earns our intrigued empathy.
The remaining dramatis personae, some quirkily amusing in their own right, are mere thespic widgets, characters whose sole raison d'etre is to be either a victim or a culprit. In Greek chorus form, each gets a turn through either oratory, interaction or a combination thereof to both absolve and indict themselves. Michelle Pfeiffer is the oft-married Mrs. Hubbard, the group's middle-aged vamp; Johnny Depp's shady Edward Ratchett says he's an art dealer; Penelope Cruz is the dooming Holy Roller; and Willem Dafoe is Professor Hardman, the requisite Aryan supremacist.
If this is your first trip aboard Christie's legendary choo-choo, you'll doubtless appreciate the well-woven puzzler. As for seasoned travelers who kind of remember how it all goes down, the joy is in imbibing both the exquisite furnishings and the pageantry of a period when people at least dressed for dinner and spoke in eloquent tones before killing each other. Personally, I'm hoping that now, since he's finished with his "Murder on the Orient Express," maybe Poirot can help me find those fantastic art deco sconces that festoon the train.
"Murder on the Orient Express," rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Kenneth Branagh and stars Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer and Judy Dench. Running time: 114 minutes
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