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WASHINGTON — In 1974, between “Serpico” (1973) and “Network” (1976), Sidney Lumet directed an Agatha Christie novel into a star-studded murder mystery with Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset and an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman.
Now, get ready to board the train again as the talented and versatile actor-director Kenneth Branagh presents his very own star-studded remake of Murder on the Orient Express.
Based on the 1934 mystery novel, the whodunit follows Detective Hercule Poirot, who boards the lavish Orient Express only for it to become caught in an avalanche. While stranded on the snowbound train, Poirot investigates a suspicious murder by interrogating the 13 passengers.
Like the deep cast of the 1974 original, the real treat here is watching stars collide. Johnny Depp is short-lived as the ill-fated victim, while the suspects include megastars Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz and Leslie Odom Jr.
Like the board game “Clue,” fans will have a blast asking, “Who killed Jack Sparrow?” Was it Rey with a “Star Wars” light saber? Elder Cunningham with a “Book of Mormon” holy book? Elvira Hancock with a “Scarface” Tommy gun? Sgt. Elias with a “Platoon” flamethrower? Or Aaron Burr, sir, with a “Hamilton” pistol? After all, he did admit, “I’m the damn fool that shot him!”
Cracking the case is Branagh, who steals the show as the exquisitely mustachioed Detective Poirot, blending William Powell’s Nick Charles in “The Thin Man” (1934) and Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in “The Pink Panther” (1963). Not only does he get all of the charming lines and hammy bits, he has the meatiest character arc in his quest for equilibrium. He’s the kind of guy who steps in crap with one foot, then wants it on his other foot to balance things out.
Behind the camera, Branagh simultaneously shows his directing chops, working with his go-to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor,” “Cinderella”) for clever visual flourishes: (1) The single-take tracking shot outside of the train as Branagh walks through all the cars; (2) The Hitchcockian “god’s eye view” after the murder with a subtle briefcase clue if you look closely; and (3) Shots through beveled edges of window panes creating reflections of good vs. evil.
If there’s one visual flaw it’s the CGI avalanche, which is so cartoonish that it feels like “Murder on the Polar Express.” Did they spend all of the budget on cast and costumes? Thankfully, the rest of the sensory experience is lavish, from detailed production design (i.e. “Snowpiercer”) to Patrick Doyle’s revised take on Richard Rodney Bennett’s iconic score (i.e. “Doctor Zhivago”).
While the music transcends generations, I’m not so sure the Agatha Christie formula does. Fans of her novels will tell you there’s often a big suspect lineup at the end as Detective Poirot reveals the culprit. While this conceit worked wonders in 1930s novels and 1970s cinema, it feels rather quaint in 2017, producing performances that feel needlessly over-the-top.
In the end, your enjoyment will depend on how recently you read Christie’s book or saw Lumet’s film. If you don’t know the culprit, you’ll find it a charming whodunit with a final twist no one will expect. If, however, the twist is fresh in your mind, it may take a little steam out of this train, waiting for the plot to chug down the tracks into the station of foregone conclusion.