Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded remake is as classy and mildly entertaining as your mom would want in an Agatha Christie adaptation.
There was right, there was wrong…now there is you.
First published in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express is one of western culture’s best-known mysteries, with Agatha Christie’s famed detective, the mustachioed Belgian Hercules Poirot, a few steps behind Sherlock Holmes in the annals of sleuthdom. Express has been a radio play, a stage play, a poorly-received made-for-TV movie, and even a point-and-click computer game. It’s been winked at by countless episodes of television (more recently, Doctor Who’s “Mummy on the Orient Express”). The most famous adaptation is Sidney Lumet’s from 1974, which was even in its day a throwback to slow-paced Old Hollywood classicism featuring an improbably star-studded cast, including Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, and Albert Finney as Poirot.
Yet its enduring popularity isn’t owed to the cleverness of its plot — the solution, which I won’t spoil for the dozen of you that have spent your lives avoiding it, isn’t considered one of Christie’s more ingenious devices — but for its status as perhaps the quintessential “locked-room mystery”: there’s a crime, usually a murder, a list of suspects who can’t leave, and a dogged detective working to sift through the red herrings and false testimony before the storm breaks. Lumet didn’t mess with that formula or even update the time period, and neither does director Kenneth Branagh in this latest adaptation. The upside is that this Murder is a polished and comfortable chamber piece, gliding along a predetermined path as a new cavalcade of stars try sink their teeth into their brief interrogation scenes. The downside is that it’s too comfortable, too familiar, and while it makes a pleasant diversion for an evening, it eventually disappears from the mind like melting snow. In two words, it’s fine.
We meet Branagh’s Poirot in Jerusalem for an invented in medias res mystery involving a sacred temple and a stolen gem, and immediately learn a few things about him. He’s obsessive-compulsive, demanding exact balance in all things: the height of his eggs, the straightness of others’ ties, and getting manure on both shoes. He has absolutely ridiculous facial hair, like four mustaches glued together and then affixed to his face. Unlike other Poirots, this isn’t simply a collection of amusing tics, but a reflection of the way he sees the world. He’s also a keen student of human nature, displaying an insight into the motivations of everyone he meets, which leaves him lonely and melancholy. (Screenwriter Michael Green, who’s having a very busy year between this, Logan, and Blade Runner 2049, gestures towards a romantic backstory by writing multiple scenes where Branagh talks to an old photograph, but it doesn’t add up to much.)
Poirot is ready to give his “little grey cells” an extended vacation when the titular train back to Europe is derailed by an avalanche; worse, there’s a corpse, stabbed a dozen times, belonging to a Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp, who’s leaning into villainous roles lately), a crooked art dealer with no shortage of enemies. So at the behest of his friend, the Express’s company representative Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot sighs and gets to work. But the case, as you know or no doubt have guessed, will come to rock Poirot’s rigid standards of right and wrong, leaving him even more depressed than before.
The list of suspects include Ratchett’s shifty secretary (Josh Gad) and valet (Derek Jacobi). There’s a bright-eyed governess (Daisy Ridley) and a pious nurse (Penelope Cruz). A hispanic car salesman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and an African-American doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) An imperious aging princess (Judi Dench) and her maidservant (Olivia Colman). A divorcee on the prowl (Michelle Pfeiffer) and a German professor (Willem Dafoe). A young Count and Countess (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) under diplomatic protection.
That’s a lot, and not everyone gets to make a strong impression. A few performers, especially Colman, are essentially wasted. It’s Branagh’s show from start to finish, and you could accuse him of mounting this as an elaborate vanity project and have a pretty good case; even so, the film is occasionally charming and frequently beautiful. The widescreen landscapes are stunning in 65mm; I just wish they looked less computer-generated. And while Branagh doesn’t offer much in the way of visual style, he occasionally uses the cramped train interiors to his advantage, like in a slick tracking shot following Poirot all the way to his sleeping car, bumping into the passengers that will become his suspects. A couple of scenes play out with the camera directly overhead, giving the audience a theatrically God’s eye-view of events.
And a few performances do break through — I was most impressed with the affectless Daisy Ridley, who would have made a brilliant Hitchcock ingenue in the 1930s or 40s. Any doubts about her abilities in non-Star Wars fare should be put to rest. Equally enjoyable is the lower-profile Tom Bateman as the charming Bouc, who becomes the more roguish Watson to Poirot’s Holmes. But though most of these actors seem to be enjoying themselves, the film is more self-serious than playful; it uses issues of race and justice as window dressing, but at least the actual windows (sets from Jim Clay and Dominic Masters) look lovely. It’s easy to romanticize train travel with a cast and vistas this attractive; the film’s ultimate failing, then, is that that’s the most memorable thing about it.
I should say I’m of two minds about this Murder; on one hand, it may end up being the defining adaptation of a very old, oft-adapted story. It’s elegant, boasts a deep ensemble, and doesn’t make many unforced errors. On the other hand, its inertness at a dramatic level and inability to make a case for its own existence, except as “that story you know, but with 2017 actors,” makes it a footnote on what has been an otherwise decent year for adults looking for a night’s entertainment from somewhere other than the Walt Disney company. I bet your mom will enjoy it, though.