Murder on the Orient Express is arguably Agatha Christie's most famous novel. It's certainly the most celebrated mystery that Hercule Poirot, her renowned Belgian detective, ever investigated, and it contains the author's most illustrious ending. Fans of the book and devotees of Sidney Lumet's star-studded 1974 adaptation will be pleased to know that this latest incarnation is faithful to its source material. But even if you know how it ends, there are still many pleasures to be had in this sleek, stylish ride as it glides smoothly along its revered rails.
We first meet Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) in Jerusalem, when he's called upon to probe a theft that purportedly involves a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. Using his extraordinary deductive skills, the dapper detective quickly solves the case and begins looking forward to a relaxing holiday that's "free of care, concern, or crime." But those plans get sidetracked when he boards the Orient Express and is forced to investigate the vicious murder of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a dubious art dealer who had informed Poirot earlier that he had received death threats and was concerned for his life. Poirot is certain the killer is still aboard the train, which is stranded atop a massive bridge due to a snowy avalanche that is blocking the tracks. And there are plenty of suspects, but which one committed the dastardly deed? Was it the victim's greedy assistant (Josh Gad) or his dutiful butler (Derek Jacobi)? Or perhaps it was the pious missionary (Penélope Cruz), the merry widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), or the cocky carmaker (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)? Could it have been the pretentious Russian princess (Judi Dench) or her berated German maid (Olivia Colman)? Better yet, it may involve an elusive governess (Daisy Ridley) and her physician lover (Leslie Odom Jr.), who were overheard by Poirot whispering about a mysterious affair before they boarded the train. But one mustn't overlook the racist Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe), or the short-fused count (Sergei Polunin) and his nocturnal wife (Lucy Boynton).
Set in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express is an old-fashioned whodunit. As such, it takes its good old time in unraveling the central mystery. Although there's little action, Branagh -- who also directed -- keeps the story humming along with lush, exquisite visuals (the film was shot in widescreen 65mm); long, mesmerizing tracking shots; and crackerjack performances from his stellar cast. Branagh is the best of the lot, leading the investigation with cool, clockwork efficiency, but no less impressive are the dozen other actors who each make the most of his or her limited screen time -- especially Pfeiffer, who follows up her exemplary work in mother! with another supporting gem, and Depp at his most gangsterish.
Once the mystery is solved, viewers will likely pick holes in the plot and raise questions about the resolution's plausibility, but readers have been doing that since the book was first published in 1934. As the story concludes, Poirot departs the train to begin his delayed holiday, only to be told that a murder was committed on the Nile that requires his sleuthing skills. Of course, that's a reference to Death on the Nile, one of Agatha Christie's most beloved Poirot tales. Here's hoping that means we haven't seen the last of Branagh's take on the dandy detective.