Murder on the Orient Express (2017) ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2

I was not looking forward to this adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie novel, only because I remember the ending of the first movie version from 1974 — once one knows the remarkable ending to this mystery it can never be forgotten.  Thus, even though I remembered no particulars of the plot, I knew what was coming.  To my great relief, it didn’t matter.  The film focuses not so much on the mystery itself as how its entanglements befuddle the brilliant Belgian detective trying to solve it, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh).

Kenneth Branagh’s film (he directs as well as stars) follows Poirot as he reluctantly bows to pressure to investigate a murder on a train from Paris to Istanbul, temporarily trapped in the mountains by an avalanche.  A myriad of suspects must be interviewed and judged by Poirot and a train company executive (Tom Bateman) before the train reaches Istanbul, or it is feared that the police will simply select the most obvious suspect for arrest.  Gradually Poirot pieces together the scant evidence, all of it connecting the dead man with a highly publicized but unsolved crime from years earlier.

Branagh’s film is surprisingly cinematic, utilizing fascinating camera angles for particular effect, and even integrating limited action into the rather static story.  Some characters stand out while others are underused; it is interesting that Branagh eschewed the all-star cast approach of the 1974 film, which I think is smart because it keeps the focus on Poirot instead of the suspects.  Viewers unaware of the twist ending are led to it by Poirot, who finds it almost unthinkable, and is staggered by its ramifications.  Indeed, the wrap-up of this story assumes tragic proportions, assuaged only by Poirot’s ultimate determination of what must be done about it.

Besides Kenneth Branagh’s mastery of the role, and his keen direction, the movie benefits from Patrick Doyle’s glorious score, a witty, literate script by Michael Green and beautiful cinematography, courtesy of Haris Zambarloukos.  I would have liked that some of the characters were more fully fleshed, but the framework works well enough.  Branagh has succeeded in creating an exciting, engrossing film version of one of the greatest mysteries ever written, just as Sidney Lumet did forty-three years ago.  That popular film — with Albert Finney as Poirot — spawned two sequels (with Peter Ustinov as Poirot); I hope Branagh revisits this character in another adventure or two (or fifty).  ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2.  6 December 2017.

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