Aficionados of the dapper, shiny-black-mustachioed David Suchet version of Hercule Poirot in the long-running British TV series “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” will find a somewhat different take on the Belgian superdetective in the brand-new film “Murder on the Orient Express.”
Based on the 1934 murder-mystery novel by Agatha Christie, “Murder” stars Kenneth Branagh as a slightly more laid-back, graying Poirot sporting an impressive, very large, handlebar-type mustache and a thick, gray soul patch. Branagh also directs.
Like the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet, which starred Albert Finney as Poirot and such heavy hitters as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Vanessa Redgrave, Branagh’s “Murder” features an all-star cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, and Johnny Depp, as the thuggish Samuel Ratchett.
Branagh’s Poirot is as detail-oriented and polite as Suchet’s Poirot. For instance, his obsession with perfect four-minute eggs for breakfast extends to measuring their height in their egg cups, in the hopes that they will be both exactly the same size. Early on, when the two eggs served to Poirot by a young boy are of different sizes, he states simply and graciously: “I blame the chicken.”
Poirot ends up on a train — the Orient Express – with a cast of characters that will all end up as possible suspects in the murder that is discovered on the train after it is stalled by an avalanche.
Black-and-white flashback scenes, bird’s-eye shots, and grand, panoramic views of miles and miles of snow-topped mountains in the early morning sun make for eye-pleasing viewing. Close-ups on characters as they are being questioned effectively add to the drama as the story unfolds.
Depp’s aging appearance (in real life) works perfectly for the scarred, rough crook he plays in “Murder.” Cruz, as the born-again Pilar Estravados, is low-key, even a little stern. Lucy Boynton, as a barbital-addicted Countess Elena Andrenyi, is quite charming.
Dench plays Princess Dragomiroff. Arguably stellar in any role she plays, Dench is just a hair on the unbelievable side as Russian royalty, as her British accent remains prominent despite her attempt to sound Russian. Similarly, American actor Leslie Odom Jr.’s portrayal of Englishman Dr. Arbuthnot is not entirely credible as his American accent slips through every so often.
British actor Olivia Colman does a wonderful job as Hildegarde Schmidt, the German assistant to Dench’s demanding character. In one scene, she and Branagh carry on a conversation in fluent German — credibility kudos to them.
In his typical fashion, Poirot sits all the suspects down at the end of the film — at a long table in a scene that visually calls up the Leonardo da Vinci painting “The Last Supper”, to address them one by one, as he reveals the guilty party, or parties, as the case may be.
On the surface, “Murder” is a whodunit movie. On another level, though, it is an elaborate commentary on the nature of justice and how it is served in its most pure form.
Branagh and screenplay writer Michael Green, of “Blade Runner 2049” fame, have given us a story worth viewing on a number of levels.
Interesting note: Pfeiffer sings the theme song, “Never Forget,” that runs during the end credits.
“Murder on the Orient Express” opens at Harbor Theater, located at 185 Townsend Ave. in Boothbay Harbor, on Friday, Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. It also plays at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 16; 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 17; and 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 20. Find Harbor Theater online at boothbaycinema.org.