Reeling it in: A classic tale on the ‘Orient Express’

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Josh Gad, left, and Johnny Depp in a scene from “Murder on the Orient Express.” (Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox via AP)

“Murder on the Orient Express”


Twentieth Century Fox

1 hour, 54 minutes

The great TV renaissance that’s going on right now has had ripple effects throughout the entertainment industry beyond just the small screen. One of the unfortunate side effects is that Hollywood studios are less willing to spend the money to produce and promote mid-level dramatic films.

The movies that dominated the landscape of the 1970s and 80s, the courtroom dramas, the political thrillers, and the complex emotional films are almost gone today, replaced by, admittedly excellent programming like “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” “House of Cards,” and “This is Us.” Today’s version of “All the President’s Men” has to have Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Steven Spielberg attached to even get past the drawing board. “The Post” comes out next week in limited markets.

All this is what makes this week’s “Murder on the Orient Express” both surprising and exciting. Beautiful, stylish, and imminently entertaining, perhaps this Agatha Christie classic can bring this kind of film back to the big screen where it belongs.

If you don’t know the story — and most of us under the age of 60 probably don’t, “Murder on the Orient Express” is pretty much as the title describes. On a three-day trip from Cairo aboard a luxury train, a man is murdered and of the dozen other occupants, everyone is a suspect. On the case, the only passenger who did not have a ticket before the train departed: Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective.

The passengers, an eclectic group including a gangster, a doctor, a gold-digger and a genuine princess, are reasonably upset, but, with the aid of an unexpected avalanche which stops the train in its tracks, Poirot will sniff out the murderer. The passengers, however, may not be everything they seem.

There is so much good about this movie, from the cast to the cinematography, but you have to be bought into the film’s straightforward, old-fashioned story-telling style. Director/star Kenneth Branagh does some interesting things with the camera, making it swoop and move with and around the characters, in and out of the train, reminiscent of the early days of filmmaking when camera tricks were the height of the technology.

But the film is anything but avant-garde. It hearkens back to time before everything had to be arch and sneering, self-referential and critical. The characters are as written — deceptive, elusive, archetypal, but not in on the joke, at least in the modern sense.

It helps that these are not modern characters and that this is not a modern story. “Orient Express” is a period piece, but one possessed of more energy than these films often have. The writing works perfectly for the film, though might seem stagey when taken out of context.

This film also hearkens back to the age when a large and impressive ensemble cast would assemble for event films. As the patrons of the Orient Express, the film includes such luminaries as Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Judy Dench, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Dafoe alongside up-and-coming stars Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley. And of course, Kenneth Branagh sporting the most fabulous mustache I’ve ever seen. Each of these actors is great in their respective role — broad, dramatic, potentially hammy, but then that’s the style.

Another nice thing about this film is that it’s neither overly crude nor particularly violent. Sure, those elements have a place in modern cinema, but they can be exhausting in large quantities. There is a disturbing crime that is obliquely described, but the visuals are fairly tame.

I was very impressed with this film, and it suggests the possibility of a new film series that is more mature and more accessible at the same time. “Death on the Nile” has already been greenlit and if Branagh is able to bring the same style and substance to that film that he does here, the entire Christie library could be up for grabs. A refreshing antidote to the non-stop action and giant aliens that currently populate the cinematic landscape. Bravo!

Grade: A

“Murder on the Orient Express” is rated PG-13 for mature themes, violence, and mild language.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.