“Murder on the Orient Express” is the kind of movie that makes perfect sense to release in the last couple months of the year. Not because it should be considered a strong contender as an awards darling, but because it’s the perfect movie for critics to bring up to their grandparents and other relatives who ask them for good movie recommendations.
It’s the perfect film for a light, holiday recommendation.
Director Kenneth Branagh has created an affable, family-friendly murder mystery, which mostly works on the strength of its delightfully winning ensemble cast. Branagh himself is in the lead, but he is joined by Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe and Judi Dench. Johnny Depp is the only sour apple in the bunch, but his role in the film is kind of satisfying for those like me who come to anything he does unwilling to be moved by his charms.
A cast like that -- mixing established, esteemed actors with charming newcomers like “Star Wars” lead Daisy Ridley and “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. -- is enough on its own to warrant a recommendation.
The story is charming too -- the film is not the first to be adapted from the novel of the same name by Agatha Christie -- although the mystery is, by design, artificial. The script and the camera intentionally obscure what the audience is allowed to know, which gives it more a quality of a primetime PBS drama than anything that evokes true wonder or contemplation.
Someone has died on a train traveling in Europe, and it just so happens that one of the greatest detectives in the world (played by Branagh) is one of the passengers, so he sets out to try to get to the bottom of the crime.
The film wants us to question everything and everyone, and we do, but that doesn’t mean our imagination is necessarily sparked.
For example, early on, we hear Daisy Ridley’s character say to Leslie Odom Jr.’s character something along the lines of, “Once this one thing is finished, then it will all be over, and we can rest.” A line like that could mean anything, which makes it kind of mean nothing, other than, “Are they a suspect? What about them? How about them?”
That’s not necessarily a problem. It works well enough for what it is, and the breezy story and fun performances are enhanced by some nice camerawork throughout the film.
It is a challenge to film a movie on a train, and I thought most of Branagh’s choices smartly handled the small spaces -- though, the move of following an actor walking inside the cars, with the camera moving outside, was a little bit unpleasant for my eyes, a little bit like being inside a moving car and following a dog running on the other side of a picket fence. The image wasn’t smooth.
Another reason “Murder” is a good recommendation for relatives at the holiday time is that the film’s moral foundation is simple. This isn’t going to make you question your most deeply held beliefs or paradigms about the world (unless, I suppose, you are a murderer). It’s a simple movie about simple justice that is simply enjoyable to watch.
No foul play there.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp
Running time: 1 hour, 54 min
Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements