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‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is better than it deserves

This remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” is better than it deserves to be. Why do I think that? Primarily because I’m not a fan of the source material, the Agatha Christie novel, nor the popular 1970s version which earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar.

It’s a mystery whose solution is too clever by half, and once you know it, you’ll never need to see it again. That hasn’t stopped this fifth adaptation, and there will no doubt be more after this one.

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Despite my reservations about the material, this adaptation treats the story with the utmost respect. Lavish production values — including breathtaking cinematography and sumptuous sets and costumes — make this film very easy on the eyes. And as with its 1970s predecessor, the cast is top-drawer. Kenneth Branagh not only directs, he stars as the inimitable Hercule Poirot.

The other actors/passengers on the train include Johnny Depp, Judy Dench, Michele Pfieffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley of Star Wars fame, among many others. Each person is a stock-character type and the actors seem to enjoy hamming it up.

The movie proceeds at a measured pace, as Poirot zeroes in on one prospective suspect after another. Since the mystery is not all that compelling, and the characters on the train are mostly one-dimensional, Poirot’s systematic approach gets a bit ponderous. Never to the point of boredom, but never to the point of active interest either. There’s just not enough at stake to care much one way or the other.

To his credit, Branagh spends a good chunk of time establishing a particular world-view for Poirot that gets severely tested by the events uncovered on the train. It’s that philosophical framework that provides a certain gravitas to the film’s end that I appreciated.

Otherwise, it’s just another glossy Agatha Christie whodunit.

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