Blu-ray Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Gets New Life from Kenneth Branagh

Let’s get it out of the way. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express was not, strictly speaking, necessary. There have been at least four adaptations (not including the countless homages and riffs on the theme) of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit throughout the years, most famously with Sidney Lumet’s 1974 production starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. But necessity is such a boring excuse to make a movie.

No, Branagh has higher aims than mere necessity. His wish is to bring the world of Christie’s classic novel to life with a new sense of vibrancy and kineticism, introducing the story in a way that introduces it to a new generation and allows classic lovers of both Lumet and Christie a new way of viewing the story. In those aims he is wildly successful.

Out now on Blu-ray, Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is a stunning addition to any movie collection. Branagh’s Poirot is everything you’ve come to love about the famous detective, presented beautifully with modern sensibilities.

Branagh has a history of adapting classic works and casting himself as the star. He played Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein; Hamlet in Hamlet; Macbeth in Macbeth; Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing; Henry V in Henry V. It’s no surprise, then, that he’d cast himself as Christie’s Hercule Poirot, that dapper, Holmesian Belgian known for his eye for detail and, of course, his mustache. Branagh seems to relish in the opportunity, perhaps more so since it’s one he gave himself.

It would be easy to take offense at the audacity if Branagh wasn’t so faithful in his aims. Faithfulness is, of course, a less objective metric than you might want to believe—there are those who might scoff at the bombast of his mustache or extravagance of his design—but Branagh is nothing if not a master at blending his vision with that of his adaptee. Though his Poirot is a bit more whimsical than the Poirots that came before him—witness his delighted giggles reading A Tale of Two Cities—the attributes of the character that so many have come to love are still there.

The polite arrogance, the nose for subtlety, the meticulousness. The spin may be new, but the essence abounds, and Branagh is 100% earnest in his efforts—both his portrayal and as director. Branagh has never been one to constrain his vision, and here he tends toward the extremities of flamboyance. Some might be put off by the stylistic flourishes and visual embellishments he puts on Murder on the Orient Express, but as a vision they definitely work.

Watching Murder on the Orient Express again brings all of this into even sharper focus than seeing it for the first time. The joy of Branagh’s version is not in the whodunnit—this is a story so well-known that whodunnit is more or less moot—but in the whimsy with which the production is mounted. This is a film that feels like the classic studio epics of yore, when studios took adult audiences seriously and catered to those in production.

That’s rare these days, what with the emphasis on superheroes and aliens that so invade the box office on a near weekly basis. Branagh’s meticulousness as a filmmaker and actor are perfect matches for Poirot as a character, and the movie shines because of it.

On top of this, there are nearly two hours of special features that make Murder on the Orient Express a delightful addition to any home library, including a newly produced documentary about Christie herself, featuring interviews with her heirs. Christie is one of those writers whose work is somehow both admired and overlooked, and the featurette gives us some amazing insight into why she remains as relevant today as she ever was.

The new featurettes also going into amazing detail about the production of Murder on the Orient Express, going so far as to build a full, 1:1 model of the series of trains that the actual Orient Express was based on, and the painstaking effects process that brings the journey to such bold life. Cinephiles will love taking the deep dive into production and they certainly don’t skimp on the information.

So necessity be damned; Murder on the Orient Express eschews necessity entirely and focuses strictly on being the best production it can possibly be. Admittedly, it still doesn’t quite live up to Lumet’s classic, but if you’re going to be second place, you could do worse than follow Lumet. Branagh fans and mystery loves will have reason to rejoice with Poirot’s cinematic resurrection and, this time, it’s a Poirot unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Murder on the Orient Express is now available on Blu-Ray and 4k Ultra.

 

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