At first glance, the just-released Murder on the Orient Express could be seen as an expression of Hollywood's deep malaise.

Since it's a nearly-century-old piece of intellectual property adapted for various screens on various occasions and features one of the best-known murder mysteries and murder mystery solutions, one would be excused for thinking yet another adaptation would offer little more than luscious set design and stunt casting.

And, to be fair, the 2017 edition of Murder on the Orient Express has all that: The set design practically drips with Old World glamour; Johnny Depp stars as the villainous Mr Ratchett; the 25-year-old Daisy Ridley, fresh off The Force Awakens, is questionably cast as a supposedly middle-aged governess; and Michelle Pfeiffer caps off a solid comeback year that also saw her star in Mother! and HBO's The Wizard of Lies.

But thanks to Kenneth Branagh, who plays world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in addition to handling directing duties, the new Orient Express has more to offer than pretty faces.


Branagh, best known for his Shakespearean adaptations, is appropriately jaunty with the merry and unflappable Poirot - the opening sequence, in which he not only unveils the thief of a relic from a Jerusalem holy site but also predicts his escape routes, is both an efficient introduction to the world's greatest detective and entirely delightful - while also endowing the crime-solving Belgian with a greater philosophical heft than previous iterations have.

In the early going, we see that Poirot is precise to the point of preciousness. He wishes for his eggs at breakfast to be the same size; if he steps in a pile of excrement with one shoe, he repeats the action with the other in order to maintain balance.

"There is right, there is wrong, and there is nothing in between," Poirot says by way of explaining why he is so keenly aware of when someone is lying to him.

His travel on the Orient Express shall challenge that belief. After Ratchett is found dead, stabbed repeatedly in his sleeper cabin, Poirot must determine who on the train did the deed.

As the day on the train, which has derailed in a snowstorm, progresses, Poirot comes to learn that Ratchett is actually named Cassetti - a gangster involved in the murder of a 2-year-old girl born to a wealthy American-British family - and that everyone on the train, from Ratchett/Cassetti's valet right down to the conductor guarding the door all night, had some relationship to the victimised family.

As you may or may not know, the solution to the whodunnit is "all of them". Each passenger stabbed Cassetti in turn in order to take revenge for his horrific crime.

But where the book treats this as a particularly clever and novel twist, Branagh treats the killing as a rather disturbing fracturing of the human soul.

We see it in the way Branagh frames his shots. The camera often looks through the Orient Express's beautiful beveled glass in a manner that shows the faces of Poirot's interview subjects in triplicate, suggesting souls torn asunder by the horrifying nature of Cassetti's crime - and also their own brokenness.

Seeing the 12 conspirators in flashback as they watch film of the happy little girl whom Cassetti killed laugh and dance while the soundtrack swelled was heartbreaking. It truly drove home the horror of the crime.

But Branagh suggests it is Poirot who is most affected by the killing of the girl and her murderer. Branagh brings all the powers of the Shakespearean stage to bear on this quirky little man who is forced to admit that shades of gray are real.

A photo of a departed loved one serves as Yorick, giving him space to monologue; his eyes tear as he works through the horrifying solution, betraying sorrow and rage all at once; he slumps slightly as he makes his decision, physically breaking down. Branagh is so good that you can practically see a little piece of Poirot die as he determines that justice demands these liars, these killers, be set free.

In the book, the crime itself feels like a game to be won. "Having placed my solution before you, I have the honour to retire from the case. ..." is Poirot's closing line.

The film is far weightier, with Branagh's Poirot stooped, humbled and a little bit broken. The murder on his Orient Express was no mere puzzle.

No, it was a tragedy in the classical sense - one compounded 12 times over with the splintering of each soul embedded in each knifeman's body.