With his new adaptation of The Murder on the Orient Express, the director/star Kenneth Branagh does nothing to besmirch the tried-and-true formula of Agatha Christie's whodunit novels. But he does have an of-the-moment take on Christie's beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh suggests Poirot as an emblem of order in a disorderly world, treating him as something of a superhero: Poirot doesn't have super-strength or big punches to get to that realization, just his trademark miraculous insight. I know no human on Earth could deduce so perfectly, but I don't need Poirot to be real — I need him to be an aspiration, like an infallible Robert Mueller. And that's exactly what Branagh delivers.
Branagh's mustache here is broom-like and walrussy, and his accent lay somewhere between David Suchet's and Peter Ustinov's but not quite Albert Finney's; no actor who takes on Poirot attempts a genuine Belgian accent -- it's part of the fun! As director, Branagh fully embraces the almost-farcical Christie habit of placing archetypal characters in fits of hysterics. More than once, Branagh's Poirot wheezes with delighted laughter as he thumbs through a Christie novel, signaling the director is resisting the trend of the gritty reboot.
Despite the bright cinematography, there's something quaint and comforting about Branagh's old-fashioned storytelling, where coincidences are extremely likely, everyone somehow knows a countess and a man puts honor above all else. (I wish we would have spent more time with his amusingly overqualified cast of veterans and about-to-break players.) Shot almost entirely inside train cars, Murder tests Branagh's ability to orient an audience in space while moving characters in complex blocking patterns. Alfred Hitchcock's confined-space films have influenced him.
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