“My name is Hercule Poirot and I’m probably the greatest detective in the world.” Mouthing these dialogues to make the audience feel that the actor who’s delivering it is actually that is a non sequitur. And in that sense, director Kenneth Branagh (who also plays the quirky Belgian detective Murder on the Orient Express) is trapped by this logic on all sides. It doesn’t, for example, necessarily follow that because you’ve rebooted an Agatha Christie classic (that had a stunning cinematic lease of life in director Sidney Lumet’s mesmerizingly star-studded perspective in 1974) you have a steamer of a winner on your hands.
And that is precisely what haunts Branagh’s enterprise right from the opening. And it’s not for lack of effort, talent, or perspicacity on the director or his formidable cast’s part. It’s the bundle of expectations with which you board this journey that eventually becomes your burden and bogs you down. With the benefit of a 20/20 vision thanks to Madame Christie and Monsieur Lumet, you expect Branagh to chart a course that’ll lay a new rail gauge, offering a new scenery of murder mystery narrative, soaked deep in the carriage atmosphere of 1935. Alas, what you get is standard gauge, chugging along with the fervor of a suburban train. The opening at Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem itself is a tepid one. Poirot called in to solve the mystery of a missing relic seems a throwback to a village wise man exposing the thief to the village idiots – the entire premise of the three holy men lined up as suspects and Poirot pirouetting around doesn’t raise your eyebrow, let alone interest in his supposedly stunning deductive skills.
Part of the reason, you discover, as the movie progresses, is Kenneth Branagh himself – by no means a lesser actor or director. But here, while fulfilling a Christie-an fantasy of making and playing her arguably most famous character, he’s hemmed in by his looks and body language. Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) in a later scene, calls him a “funny-looking man”. Blame it on her character’s barbiturate-dependence, but nothing could be further from the truth. David Suchet and Albert Finney brought to their roles all the what-we-now-call-as OCD combined with a grandiose, self-centered importance that made it funny and fun. Branagh – looking like a cross between the Pierce Brosnan who modeled for an Indian pan masala and a wannabe maharajah, and sounding a strange mixture of an Englishman and Peter Seller’s Clouseau – thwacks off all the mystic out of Poirot. In the aforementioned Jerusalem scene, his accent slips when he’s raising his voice, all of a sudden well-crafted, momentary slip into her Majesty’s secret lip service.
As the train gets ready for departure, the coach to Calais begins filling with acting luminaries, and this, unfortunately, is what it looks like, rather than the long list of characters from the mystery. In the cat walk of fame arrive Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) – there are others in the coach, just so you know the Express is in high demand, and the list of suspects are almost as many. Poirot’s friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), director of the Orient Express, who helps him get a sleeper berth, is part of the travelling entourage.
Murder strikes, there are suspects, red herrings everywhere, an avalanche that causes the journey to come to a derailed halt, and Poirot must summon all his little grey cells to crack the case that’ll forever change his perception of black-and-white in the world of crime and killers. You’d think this would make for some gripping stuff.
The movie, instead, takes a strikingly good looking route, Branagh’s tracking aerial shots of the train amidst snow-capped mountains almost the highlight onscreen. Which is the other problem. The director fails to capture the stifling, terrorizing claustrophobia of the coach, making it look all very simple and straight-forward. Even the top shots inside the carriages that he shoots are more distracting, taking an almost detached view of the goings-on below, you wondering what to make of all the heads you see. With the result, the breathtaking scenery is memorable, the mystery less so. Is that why the denouement, weak by any detective movie standards, takes place outside the train – all the passengers lined up on chairs, as if guests of honor at a valedictory event – instead of inside of the dining car, where the tension in the book and the 1974 movie was unbearable?
The stellar cast has much less to do, stalwarts such Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi snacking on their bit parts. Willem Dafoe is good, as is Penélope Cruz. Tom Bateman adds that nice edge of young recklessness, weighed down by the murder and his responsibilities. Johnny Depp is vaguely out of it all, him doomed, I’m afraid, to forever suffer the curse of the Pirates franchise hangover. Michelle Pfeiffer is the shining star here, her semi-haughty, semi-naughty act a brilliant shimmer of coach pyrotechnics. Watch her in a scene where Defoe’s character gets a dressing down about his racial bias, and her expressions bounce off a mixture of insouciance and voyeuristic fun – simply fabulous.
Which, unfortunately, is more than what you can say for the visually sumptuous-but-nothing-else movie, and all you can do is paraphrase a dialogue from it: “There was Christie. There was Lumet. And there’s you.”
Murder on the Orient Express is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) Mild adult theme and mild violence
Murder on the Orient Express
Director Kenneth Branagh Running Time 1h 54 min
Writers Agatha Christie (novel), Michael Green
Stars Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi
Genres Crime, Drama, Mystery
Watch the trailer of Murder on the Orient Express here: