Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is a lavish romp

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Johnny Depp in a scene from, "Murder on the Orient Express." (Twentieth Century Fox via AP)
The Associated Press

Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express ” is a visual feast, bursting with movie stars, glamour and production value so high, you might just exit the theater experiencing some time-warp whiplash. Certainly no studio would make a straightforward, classical whodunit with a budget the size of a modest superhero pic (and no superheroes to speak of) nowadays, you think. What year is this anyway?

But against all odds and logic, here we have, in the waning days of 2017, a perfectly decent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel with the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Branagh himself lighting up the big screen and chewing the decadent scenery like old-fashioned stars.

Branagh plays the lead, Hercule Poirot, a dandy Belgian detective with a gloriously over-the-top mustache who can only see the world as it should be. Imperfections, he says, stand out, whether it’s two soft-boiled eggs that are of different sizes or, you know, the kind of incongruities that make it immediately obvious to him who has committed a crime. This is all laid out quite neatly in a lively opening sequence at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where he theatrically solves a theft in front of a crowd of locals on the verge of rioting.

Chance brings him aboard the Orient Express, which should really have its own credit in the film, where he meets an odd group of strangers — a sultry widow (Pfeiffer), a secretive governess (Daisy Ridley), the doctor whom she pretends to not know (Leslie Odom Jr.), a gangster-like art dealer (Depp), his valet (Derek Jacobi) and his bookkeeper (Josh Gad), a princess (Dench) and her maid (Olivia Coleman), a religious zealot (Cruz), a volatile dancer (Sergei Polunin) and his sick wife (Lucy Boynton), a German professor (Willem Dafoe) and a count (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). And then one of them dies — there’s at least a chance someone reading doesn’t yet know who — and everyone remaining becomes a suspect.

Got all that?

Don’t worry. It’s more than a little overwhelming to keep track of who’s who in this bunch and quite a few get the short shrift. But it’s still fun enough to see Depp hamming it up with a thick New York accent, Pfeiffer vamping around the train’s hallways and Branagh careening between giddy parody and self-seriousness as a man who delights in a well-constructed pastry and a good turn-of-phrase from Charles Dickens but can’t seem to comprehend moral ambiguity in the slightest.

Unfortunately, the movie loses its steam right when the intrigue is supposed to be taking over. The discovery process isn’t nearly as fun or engaging as it should be, and despite the energetic start, the film becomes a bit of a slog waiting for the big answer (for those who already know it, either from the source material, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film or any of the other adaptations, this might be even more tedious).

Branagh certainly steals scenes as Poirot, but the director might have taken some more time to ensure that all of his characters were given as loving a treatment as his own, or the setting, which is truly quite splendid to behold and even makes up for some of the deficiencies of the storytelling.

As odd as it might sound, it is somewhat refreshing to sit in a theater and watch a grand scale production that’s not set in space or predetermined by the pages in a comic book. Then it goes and mucks it all up by leaving the door conspicuously open for a sequel.

“Murder on the Orient Express,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for violence and thematic elements.” Running time: 114 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.