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Murder on the Orient Express


Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Tom Bateman

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Agatha Christie's legendary death train mystery was published in 1934 and first filmed in 1974 with Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot (who made his screen debut in 1931's Alibi, played by Austin Trevor). The Belgian sleuth's little grey cells were subsequently urged into action by Peter Ustinov in 1978's Death on the Nile, in a 2001 TV movie version when he was played by Alfred Molina, and then portrayed time after time after time on British television by David Suchet.

So, with the best-selling novel in print for some 83 years, Finney's movie (and, possibly, Molina's telefilm), a huge number of potential moviegoers must already know whodunit.

Suspense, then, isn't the prime aspect here. Realising this, while playing fair to Christie's original story, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green concentrate (as did director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paul Dehn in 1974) on ensuring the attention-grabbing casting and performances to match keep you entertained even when you already know how the hunt for truth ends.

Green, too, creates a new opening where Branagh ('My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world') smartly solves a case involving an priest, a rabbi and an imam before (with some help from the management) boarding the eponymous train to return to London.

Before long, with the train off the rails and stranded in snowbound mountains, he has to solve the strange case of the seedy gangster passenger who is slain by a slew of stab wounds.

Just in case you don't already know, there are plenty of suspects, all of whom were travelling with victim Depp. Depp (who tries but fails to hire Poirot to help him) is suitably sleazy, Pfeiffer is sexy and convincing, Dench dominates her every scene in best Lady Bracknell mode, Ridley scores satisfactorily, as do Cruz, Colman, Gad and Jacoby. And how does Branagh do when faced with a known story, an already established character as Poirot and having to follow in the footsteps of auteur Sidney Lumet, director of the 1974 version?

As director, Branagh does the business, telling his story entertainingly, making good use of slick special effects to strand his suspects in the mountain snow, using Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography well and, best of all, ensuring the performances are in tune with his style of storytelling. And his engaging portrait of Poirot ('Forgive me. I am Belgian!' he snaps) owes everything to Branagh (and Christie of course). His Poirot is unconventional (his pernickety fuss to ensure his boiled eggs in Jerusalem at breakfast are boiled for just the right time) so eat your heart out, Prince Charles, if reports are to be believed!

He perfectly establishes Poirot's eccentricity, but never dilutes his unique ability as a detective. His accent may not be pure Belgian (how would I know?) but it works perfectly in context, as does his take on Christie's character. Sadly, for him, while Lumet was an acknowledged auteur, Branagh isn't, thus guaranteeing him a critical kicking.

I read Christie's whodunit for the first time at the age of 11 after my mother told me not to read any of her green cover paperback Penguin thrillers, and really enjoyed it - and I enjoyed Branagh's too!

It may not be art, but it's fun...

Alan Frank

Malta/USA 2017. UK Distributor: 20th Century Fox. Colour.
113 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 04 Nov 2017