Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Michael Green
Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.
It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).
For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.
Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.
I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.