Scoring a few points for the plebes are Daisy Ridley of "Star Wars" fame as a sly, evasive British governess and Leslie Odom Jr. as the American doctor who might be her lover, her consort or both. Derek Jacobi cuts a proper, gentlemanly figure as Ratchett's valet, while Josh Gad stands out as a shifty secretary, even if his attempt to flee suspicion triggers the first of a few ill-advised action scenes.
Branagh may know better than to mess with a ripping good yarn, but he doesn't always trust it to stand on its own. He also doesn't seem entirely certain where to put the camera; I was mystified by the decision to film the discovery of Ratchett's body with an overhead shot of the outside hallway, a gesture that smacks of clumsy artifice. It's not the only visual decision that makes us feel cut off from rather than invested in the material, reducing even the opulent details of Jim Clay's mid-'30s production design to the trappings of an exercise.
The most compelling angle of this particular whodunit still comes down to motive. Ratchett probably deserved his bloody fate, but acts of retribution don't sit well with Poirot, and long after he has ceased pondering the crime's logistical riddles, he is troubled by its ethical implications. As cinema or literature, "Murder on the Orient Express" may be little more than a clever parlor trick. But in its final moments, even this overstuffed, underachieved movie offers a morally unsettling reminder that -- with apologies to Chandler -- the art of murder isn't always as simple as it appears.
'MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS'
Rating: PG-13, for violence and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
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