Writer: Michael Green (screenplay), Agatha Christie (novel)
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo
Running time: 114mins
What’s the story: As the Orient Express travels through the mountain ranges of the middle east, one passenger is murdered. It falls to famed detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) to solve the crime.
What’s the verdict: The latest big screen go-round for Agatha Christie’s beloved whodunnit is much like the titular choo-choo. Handsomely decorated, but never building to a full head of steam and derailing halfway through. Oddly, the locomotive itself is also never allowed a hero shot.
Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe bring old school glamour as a husband chasing socialite, a zealous missionary (Polish in the book, Mexican here) and a Nazi doctor. Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr and Josh Gad represent New Hollywood as a governess, a doctor and the lawyer of Johnny Depp’s shifty art dealer.
This being a Branagh joint, luvviedom comes courtesy of Judi Dench’s tetchy princess, Olivia Colman as her German assistant and Derek Jacobi as Depp’s valet. Plus, Lucy Boynton as a tremulous Countess and ballet star Sergei Polunin as her hair-trigger husband. Then there’s Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s holidaying businessman.
Director/star Branagh has the face fur of Christie’s super-sleuth. Trouble is he and Blade Runner 2049 writer Michael Green are too wrapped up in what makes the detective tick to focus on the mechanics of the plot.
Meaning the story stalls and sputters, misses beats and grinds gears. Crucially, when the murder occurs, the audience is not allowed to join in solving the crime.
Poirot’s investigation throws up a wealth of clues and a few dead certs/red herrings. But, viewers are held at arm’s length by the convoluted introduction of a previous murder, integral to the plot but clumsily handled, and pacing powered by embalming fluid rather than adrenalin.
When the Belgian bloodhound reveals whose hand was on the knife in a climactic lecture (literally a lecture – both the cast and audience are all seated) Branagh elects against including face-revealing flashbacks. Instead, he goes again for character psychology, missing the point that the puzzle and its reveal are the appeal of this sort of yarn.
What keeps this at an agreeable 3-stars rather than a 2-star points failure?
Quite simply, Murder on the Orient Express is one of the year’s most beautiful movies. A sunny prologue set in Jerusalem but shot in Malta and Italy is a nifty piece of character set-up and the film deploys CGI the way classical Hollywood used sumptuous matte paintings and miniatures.
In an age of beige blockbuster spectacle, it’s frequently exhilarating to see Branagh channeling the visual splendor of old school epics. Hats off to designer Jim Clay and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos for helping provide the film its one indisputable success.
The cross-demographic appeal cast are also eminently watchable, with the increasingly unlikeable Depp surprisingly effective (although he does play a cad). Elsewhere other cast members are awarded little screen time (Dafoe) or are miscast (Colman). And many of these passengers seemed rather well-schooled in 21st century diversity politics for characters from the 1930s.
Not in the same class as Sidney Lumet’s 1974 telling, yet not a total train wreck either. However, a return ticket is not necessary.