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'Murder on the Orient Express': a Crowd-Pleasing Homicide Tale

Kenneth Branagh is in charge of a stellar cast

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 54 minutes

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Despite Kenneth Branagh’s five Oscar nominations and 18 previous films as a director, some Inspector Poirot purists are peeved over his update of Agatha Christie’s whodunit full of colorful suspects trapped in an avalanche aboard a famous train. How dare he play Belgium’s answer to Sherlock Holmes while wearing a large, complicated mustache resembling the cowcatcher on the front of a train? And why try to beat Sidney Lumet’s beloved 1974 version and David Suchet’s 2010 TV version?

He’d be crazy not to, with the cast he’s assembled. Michelle Pfeiffer, on a comeback roll at 59 (with a Wizard of Lies Emmy nom, the most-raved performance in mother! and this tangy role as a multiple-married widow), burst into tears on the first day of shooting. “My God, what’s happened?” said Branagh. “I just met Judi Dench!” she replied. Pfeiffer nails the demanding long takes, and stick around for the credits, in which she sings the film’s song “Never Forget” with a breathiness and lovely vibrato reminiscent of her Oscar-nominated chanteuse in The Fabulous Baker Boys. As the haughty, dishonest Russian Princess Dragomiroff, the fabulous aforementioned Dench, 82, gets less screen time than Pfeiffer, but Wendy Hiller was no better in the 1974 version.

Johnny Depp sweats it out as the most-hated guy on the Orient Express, a gangster turned thuggish antiques dealer. When somebody turns up dead in his stateroom, Poirot starts interrogating passengers. Is it Pfeiffer’s hard-drinking man-eater, who’d better watch out for a knife in the back? Dench’s aristocrat or her maid Hildegarde (Olivia Colman of Broadchurch)? Penelope Cruz’s religious fanatic? The Nazi-like alleged professor played by Willem Dafoe? Depp’s suspicious private secretary (Josh Gad) or servant (Derek Jacobi, 89)? The governess (Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley) or her boyfriend the doctor (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.)? The barbiturate-addicted countess (Lucy Boynton)?

Kenneth Branagh in 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Nicola Dove/Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Kenneth Branagh fills two roles in "Murder on the Orient Express," as he's the director and a star — something he's done many times over the course of his career.

I'll never tell, and Branagh juggles the star turns and Easter-egg clue placements with aplomb. You'll never guess, unless you're one of the countless who have known whodunit since 1974, if not 1934. He gives the tale a glossy look, and while his attempts to open up the action so it's not just set inside a claustrophobic train car but in a train precariously perched on a wooden bridge in snowy mountains still wind up making the film feel more like a theater piece than an action flick, so what? It's an absorbing theater piece with tons of talent and scads of jangly camera angles that make you feel like you're dangling over a precipice even when you're inside the train.

He never matches the brio of the marvelous opening sequence, in which Poirot effortlessly outwits a criminal while setting up a trap to prevent his escape, in full view of the clueless criminal and an angry crowd. The finale does not achieve the moral force of judgment on humanity that Branagh tries to bring to it, and his stab at giving Poirot a character arc and a thing he must learn seems pasted on. Poirot is like Spock, beyond human character. But throughout, the storytelling doesn't sag, and you don't find many ensembles to match these terrified homicide perpetrators or victims.