(KENNETH BRANAGH IN MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS /​20th CENTURY FOX)

20th Century Fox. 2017. Mystery. 114 minutes.

RATING: 4 angels

It’s debat­able whether or not Murder on the Orient Express is actu­al­ly Agatha Christie’s best work – but there’s lit­tle doubt that it’s far and away her most famous work. It’s also the one that most lends itself to filmed adap­ta­tion, in part because of the easily-​marketed exoti­cism sug­gest­ed by the title, but also because the ros­ter of char­ac­ters prac­ti­cal­ly begs for all-​star cast­ing. While Kenneth Branagh’s lat­est incar­na­tion can’t rival Sidney Lumet’s orig­i­nal 1974 ver­sion for its all-​star cre­den­tials, it is by far the more enjoy­able and cin­e­mat­ic inter­pre­ta­tion, buoy­ing the oth­er­wise claus­tro­pho­bic who­dunit with a sense of cin­e­mat­ic scale befit­ting its setting.

It’s no small irony that Christie’s fuss­i­ly bril­liant Belgian Sleuth, Hercule Poirot, has only ever been por­trayed by English actors, all of them appar­ent­ly par­ty to a multi-​generational com­pe­ti­tion as to who can mas­ter the more out­landish accent and sport the more ridicu­lous mous­tache. Branagh is in no hur­ry to con­tend in the accent depart­ment – he plays it most­ly straight – but his cheekbone-​to-​cheekbone stache, which pre­cedes him like the mermaid-​bedecked prow of a schooner, rais­es the bar not just for oth­er Poirots, but for the entire tone of the film, mak­ing clear that every­thing in this Orient Express will be big­ger, bold­er, cheeki­er (lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly) and hairi­er (lit­er­al­ly and figuratively).

The spoiler-​free broad strokes of the sto­ry remain the same – in 1935, while in the Levant, famed sleuth Hercule Poirot is called to solve a case in London for which he books a cab­in on the Orient Express. When inclement weath­er stops the train in a remote moun­tain region, it’s dis­cov­ered that a mur­der has tak­en place among a select group of pas­sen­gers – all of whom are now sus­pects as Poirot works to solve the mur­der before author­i­ties reach the train at its next sta­tion. Published in 1934, with a back­sto­ry that ref­er­ences the 1932 kid­nap­ping and mur­der of Charles Lindbergh’s son, Murder on the Orient Express obvi­ous­ly no longer strikes on the same cul­tur­al touch­stones it did at the time. As a peri­od mys­tery and lit­er­ary arti­fact, it has become kitsch­i­er and kitsch­i­er over ensu­ing decades, result­ing in at least two adap­ta­tions – a 2015 Japanese tele­vi­sion minis­eries and a mis­be­got­ten, con­tem­po­rized 2001 tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion star­ring Alfred Molina – tak­ing almost ludi­crous lib­er­ties to man­u­fac­ture modern-​day rel­e­vance. No sur­prise, then, that the pre­ferred ver­sions, until now, remain the more faith­ful ver­sions – the 1974 Lumet film and the 2010 tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion with David Suchet, which was pro­duced as part of Suchet’s lon­grun­ning Agatha Christie’s Poirot” series.

The 1974 film, which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar and was nom­i­nat­ed in five oth­er cat­e­gories, cap­i­tal­ized on that decade’s hunger for all-​star ensem­bles. Disaster films like Airport and The Towering Inferno had helped fuel a vora­cious appetite for stars piled upon stars. Alongside Bergman, the ros­ter of Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jean-​Pierre Cassel, Richard Widmark and, of course, Albert Finney as Poirot was as daz­zling as any ever assem­bled and audi­ences and Oscar vot­ers respond­ed. Branagh’s new film – which boasts no slouchy ensem­ble itself with Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Pénelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi – has been like­wise con­fig­ured to the tastes of today’s audi­ences, equal parts vis­cer­al and cere­bral, set­ting the tone with a mar­velous Jerusalem open­ing that imme­di­ate­ly rais­es expec­ta­tions for both scale and excite­ment. What fol­lows nev­er dis­ap­points. By turns wit­ty, chill­ing, provoca­tive, excit­ing and smart, Orient Express has been con­scious­ly designed as a van­guard – the first of an intend­ed ACCU (Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe) that will hope­ful­ly yield more such out­ings from Branagh and 20th Century Fox.

Perhaps it’s that very hope that has Branagh in his finest form in decades – his Poirot is not only fussier and feisti­er than pre­vi­ous ver­sions, but more vul­ner­a­ble – an ego­tist inti­mate­ly aware of his skills, yet also deeply con­scious of the very lim­it­ed life to which they con­strain him. Not since 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing has Branagh seemed this spry and fleet-​footed in a per­for­mance – yet anoth­er rea­son to hope that more such out­ings will materialize.

Credit also goes to Branagh’s col­lab­o­ra­tors – screen­writer Michael Green (Blade Runner: 2049, Logan) for a deft, faith­ful adap­ta­tion, cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Haris Zambarloukos for a look that screams to be seen in 70mm, and long­time friend and com­pos­er Patrick Doyle for yet anoth­er rous­ing, mem­o­rable score. With anoth­er Christie adap­ta­tion due to arrive in December – the Glenn Close-​starrer Crooked House – Branagh and Fox have set a suc­cu­lent table of ear­ly hol­i­day sea­son delights for filmgoers.

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