Immaculate puzzle box

Cinema still from Murder On The Orient Express.
Cinema still from Murder On The Orient Express. PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX



114 minutes/opens tomorrow / 3 stars

The story: Famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) hopes to finally get some time away from it all when he boards the Orient Express at Istanbul, bound for London. While on board, shady businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp) asks him to find the person sending him threatening letters. The detective refuses, and when the train is stuck in snow, Ratchett is found dead in his room. Poirot concludes that the murderer is still on board.

From time to time, production companies will trawl through back catalogues looking for something to update. For some inexplicable reason, this was picked for a do-over.

Maybe the decision was prompted by period drama hits such as Downton Abbey (2010 to 2015).

Whatever the cause, this adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 novel will surely create pangs for a time when men wore suits to dinner while the servants kept the linens crisp and the crystal sparkling.

Actor-director Branagh keeps the tone light and the pace brisk and as in Cinderella (2015), which he directed but did not appear in, he takes great care to avoid knowingness - the cast and script stay true to the source material with poker-faced sincerity.

There are a couple of minor updates. The Dr Arbuthnot character is now played by black actor Leslie Odom Jr and the racist attitudes of the 1930s are touched on briefly.

Michael Green's screenplay (Blade Runner 2049; Logan, 2017) plays up Poirot's obsessive-compulsive tics, which is a pity, because on television, there are already too many sleuths and doctors who turn disabilities into superpowers.

Otherwise, Branagh shines in letting his starry cast, which include Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi, take their turns in the spotlight.

Branagh loves actors doing what they do best and admirably, his restrained, distant Poirot never upstages anyone, especially in two-hander scenes when characters are individually grilled by the detective.

The puzzle-box mechanics of the Christie murder mystery - a fixed number of persons, all limited in movement and clues which, at the climax, lock into place - are kept as immaculate as the table settings in the dining car.

Not only that, the finale, in which Poirot lays out his conclusions and points his famous accusatory finger, is a setpiece of such theatrical flair that it is topped only by his magnificent whiskers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'Immaculate puzzle box'. Print Edition | Subscribe