Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptation suffers from an uneven ensemble and an overall lack of excitement.
Why watch a whodunit if you already know who had done it? The answer lies in our need for comfort. Like the calm of listening to a favorite song on repeat, there is considerable reassurance, especially on days of uncertainty, in hearing the familiar notes of a handsome crime tale and arriving at a solution you already know is coming. I discovered this type of escapism at a young age and applied it to an ever-growing list of books and films I was obsessed with, by re-reading/re-watching them with first-time enthusiasm. The novels of Agatha Christie were certainly a staple in my catalog of fixations.
That kind of soothing, popcorn escapism (and OK, some Art Deco goodness and glory from the 1930s) is what I craved when I rushed to catch Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, adapted for screen by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) from one of Christie’s most renowned crime novels built around the world-famous Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. But instead of the cinematic equivalent of a cunning page-turner, I found an uninspired production that felt wrong at once like a designer knock-off: passable from a distance until closer inspection. Even the opulence on screen—from Jim Clay’s production design to the distracting CGI and Alexandra Byrne’s pretty costumes that aim for glamour and spectacle—seems like the kind you’d spot in an overstuffed department store’s holiday window display that does little to invite the passerby in. Throughout the newest version of Murder on the Orient Express, you are on the outside, looking in, feeling unwelcome even when you desperately want to join the party once it gets going.
But it never does, though the constant tease is there. Like the train itself, the film gets mired by an icy atmosphere, shared by a crowded group of characters that are more rough sketches than real people with sincere stakes. In fairness, the elaborate plot of the source material requires multiple parallel set ups of various players to jump-start the locomotive and leaves little time for building people out in a screen adaptation. Also, let’s not get ahead of ourselves: this is, in the end, a perishable crime flick that’s supposed to be fun, and not a thorough character study. Though a little bit of it would have gone a long way towards making the audience care for what’s going on and stopped me from checking my watch when the reveal arrives. (It’s not really a reveal for anyone who’s read the novel or watched one of the many adaptations.) Instead, Green’s script stays closer to Poirot’s quirks and attempts to engage with race relations from a 21st Century lens. Only some of his efforts pay off.
For the record, I am not immensely enamored of Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 iteration either, even though I do admit, his is a much more enjoyable Murder to watch. Plus, you hop on Lumet’s train with the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, so there is that. In comparison, Branagh’s version misses the mark both on plain old entertainment and childlike excitement, despite having an equally impressive parade of contemporary stars like Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Lesley Odom Jr, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, just to name a few. Branagh’s direction—which summoned exceptional ensemble acting work when he tried his hand on Shakespeare adaptations and Cinderella in the past—doesn’t seem to have a unifying magic touch here. Individual performances of a superior Pfeiffer (who plays Caroline Hubbard, among the most important personas aboard) and a precise Ridley (in the role of Mary Debenham) stand out and impress. Playing Princess Dragomiroff, Judi Dench gives the impression of one of her previous roles as a Queen. Meanwhile Depp…well, let’s just say it’s a relief to know that since he is playing the victim (the shady businessman Edward Ratchett), he won’t stick around for long. And this is as far as I am willing to go in describing Murder‘s infamous plot in this review.
Director Branagh also shoulders the enormous task of playing the magnificently mustached detective Poirot and does more or less right by him. Credit where credit’s due: I enjoyed Branagh’s interpretation of the private eye a lot more than Albert Finney’s over-performed version. Branagh nails Poirot’s compulsive attention to detail, his consequent gaze and peculiar walk. His accent, which will surely be open to much disagreement, sounded right and pleasant to me, even when the studio screening I was at had unfortunate projection issues with an out-of-sync audio. I just wish Poirot’s obsession with symmetry and harmony—he seeks even-sized eggs for breakfast and purposely steps into feces to equalize both shoes, to give you an idea—rubbed off on both director Branagh and screenwriter Green ever so slightly. Perhaps then Murder wouldn’t have been such a derailed snooze.