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From Paris to Constantinople in three nights. That was the pitch for the Orient Express, the blanket term for the system of connected national railways overseen by Belgian operator Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. An extension from Paris to Calais fully conjoined the east-to-west edges of the continent, and a ferry service to Dover with a final span to London was the necessary link to create a legacy of British mystery stories.
The Orient Express and its greatly visible method of stylishly crossing borders began in 1876 and, as many rail enthusiasts are eager to point out, technically still existed in truncated, high-speed form all the way through 2009. A current private service of luxury, old-fashioned trains called the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express currently operates in Europe for leisure travel, but one need not be a great detective to recognize that this is not the “real” Orient Express.
Indeed, detectives forever maintain a special berth aboard the Orient Express, thanks of course to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.
Poirot, the brilliant Belgian investigator with a keen eye for detail and outlandish facial hair, is back once again at pop culture's main platform. Director Kenneth Branagh and some of the most talented set designers in the film biz have lovingly recreated the look of 1930s opulence. I can think of no film this year with finer place settings. Unfortunately, despite a marvelously assembled cast and what is a battle-tested storyline, this most recent version of Murder on the Orient Express gets undeniably sluggish during some parts of its journey.
There are variations, like a Jerusalem-set comic prologue, from the Christie novel and the 1974 Sidney Lumet film version in which Albert Finney played Poirot and Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Penélope Cruz plays the equivalent role this time, and while she is in no danger of receiving any trophies for the performance, she and everyone else is somewhere better than fine but less than spectacular in the film. That includes Johnny Depp as the murdered American “businessman,” Josh Gad as his assistant, Derek Jacobi as their butler, plus Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Josh Gad, and others as fellow travelers and suspects.
Branagh himself plays Poirot, and when he leans into the silliness of the affair he's quite good. (He sleeps with a mustache-guard, for heaven's sake.) Only the Michelle Pfeiffer character (Lauren Bacall in '74) understands that the finely tailored lounge car furniture is there explicitly for chewing purposes. Branagh sets up Dame Judi Dench's entrance as a Russian princess as though it will be nonstop hilarity, but Dench is unusually restrained, and her scenes, like the movie in general, are a bit of a letdown.
The film is not without its pleasures. The embarkation scene at Sirkeci Station in what the characters call “Stamboul” (a nice attention to period detail) is a swirl of gorgeous production design. At the packed screening I attended, every critic in the lobby afterwards agreed the best moment in the film was a glamor shot of bread in a Turkish kitchen. The train makes one stop (Vinckovi in today's Croatia) but those coming to this looking for a recreated Grand Tour should manage their expectations. A cheaply rendered CGI avalanche outside Brod stops the sightseeing in its tracks.
Sadly the whodunnit aspect in Branagh's film lacks oomph, and that isn't because I'd seen the original. (Quite frankly, I'd forgotten the ending.) It's all too fusty and forced to really care about the slew of characters. But as a nostalgia trip it isn't bad, and if art deco frosted glass and key-lit wooden corridors are your thing, you won't do much better than booking passage and seeing this at the nicest cinema you can find. To watch Murder on the Orient Express on a tiny screen on an airplane would be just too cruel for all involved.