Arts & Leisure

“Murder” works, but is no killer film

KENNETH BRANAGH stars in “Murder on the Orient Express.”

By Jim Tortolano

Murder mysteries, generally, leave me as cold as a dead guy in a London alley in January. That’s mainly because I can never guess whodunit, and that makes me feel like the author is trying to prove how much smarter he is than me.

However, every so often, a murder mystery movie comes along that is sufficiently escapist and charming that I am not late for the door after half-an-hour.

The new version of Agatha Christie’s classic “Murder on the Orient Express.” Although the story line is little better than slightly above average, the settings and cinematography, and the stellar performance by Kenneth Branagh as detective Hercule Poirot redeem this film.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but “Murder” is set on board a fabled train making the journey from Istanbul, Turkey, to Calais, in France. On board are a clutch of interesting characters, ranging from minor royalty to a mobster. Most of those roles are, in turn, played by Hollywood royalty, including Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Defoe and Johnny Depp.

The train is stopped somewhere in Yugoslavia by an avalanche. The story line is jump-started by the discovery of the fatal stabbing of the mobster (Depp), and the passengers and train staff urge Poirot (Branagh), to crack the case, considering the fact that he is “the world’s greatest detective.” That’s in 1934, after Sherlock Holmes and before The Batman.

Branagh turns in a bravura performance (and also directs competently), perfectly inhabiting a man whose obsession with perfection makes him a great shamus. His impressive mustache is almost as important, quickly identifying for the viewer an eccentric genius.

Just as much of a character is the scenery and the mood. The romantic era of rail travel is impressively depicted and it makes you want to book a sleeper car to some exotic location.

The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos transports you as believably as the train does and keeps you interested until the choo-choo chugs to a stop and the duller, talky parts take over. Michael Green’s screenplay rolls along fine until the somewhat tedious recitations kick in, and the passengers each get only a few minutes screen time, as in a youth soccer team where every player is guaranteed some small turn in the action.

Half-fun and half-artifact, “Murder” is a nicely-done film limited by the storyline. As with the train, it hits a roadblock just when it was rolling along fine.

“Murder On the Orient Express” is rated PG-13 for violence, alcohol and tobacco use.

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