Murder on the Orient Express

In this lavish remake of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery, “Murder on the Orient Express,” a long train ride through the snowy wilderness in 1934 is interrupted by a murder. An all-star cast embodies a handful of colorful characters, all of whom become suspects. Unfortunately for the killer at large, one of the passengers is Hercule Poirot (played by Keneth Branagh, the film’s director), who, in his own words, is “probably the greatest detective in the world.”

Branagh’s film begins on unsteady ground, as we open on the end of a case Poirot is solving in at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem). The scene does its job at conveying Poirot’s eccentric brilliance but something feels off.

Branagh, whose Poirot is in every scene, teases us with the intricate but hidden layers o Poirot’s mind, showing us the flamboyant surface levels of the character but concealing all else. His French accent is unsteady at times but it’s still a strong, at times hypnotic performance. Although his film is promoted as an ensemble piece, this is more a vehicle for Branagh than anything else. The final moments tease a potential sequel, an adaptation of Christie’s “Death on the Nile.” Well, why not? With seemingly every studio trying to set up another potential franchise (and, outside of superhero and YA novel adaptations, mostly failing), it’d be nice to have an annual, grown-up minded mystery with a star studded cast.

I’m a big fan of Branagh, whose film career is flush with highlights. Following his exemplary career as a stage actor and go-to performer for all things William Shakespeare, Branagh made a stunning film debut as the star/director of “Henry V” (1990). He followed that with a series of breathtaking hits (like “Dead Again” and “Much Ado About Nothing”), a few disappointments (like his under-estimated “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”) and a couple of what-is-he-thinking disasters (like a musical adaptation of “Love’s Labor’s Lost’).

Branagh has acted for directors ranging from Woody Allen, Robert Altman and Christopher Nolan and played key roles in franchises that soared (“Harry Potter”) or never took off (“Wild Wild West”). In recent years, he’s directed “Thor,” “Cinderella” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent,” respectable mainstream films that, nevertheless, lacked the passion and theatrical panache of his earlier works.

His latest film exudes the filmmaking playfulness and acrobatic cinematography of his best work and stops short of being overly stylized (the key flaw in his severely overdone Michael Caine/Jude Law “Sleuth” remake). The problem is a script that is both quite clever and really confusing, with even helpful flashbacks failing to present this knotty whodunit with total clarity. Despite Branagh adding some Hitchcockian camera angles, there’s a lack of excitement and tension.

There’s also Sidney Lumet’s 1974 “Murder on the Orient Express,” which is a preferable Christie adaptation. To be fair, Branagh is a much better Poirot than Albert Finney and his version is ten minutes shorter than Lumet’s. Yet, while Branagh’s cast is most impressive, there’s really nothing to compare with the sight of legends like Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, all in the same scene.

Still, everyone in Branagh’s cast is stellar, even when the roles are frustratingly small or one-note. Johnny Depp is superb playing a rough-around-the-edges, whimsy-free character and Josh Gad is, likewise, surprisingly grim and dialed back. In only her second major film role, Daisy Ridley is excellent, holds her own with acting heavyweights and seems destined to become a legend herself. The only thing more fun than seeing a dotty Dame Judi Dench get upstaged by a cute dog is watching Branagh share a scene with the estimable Derek Jacobi. Michelle Pfeiffer is another stand-out, though I was hoping Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz would be given more to do.

Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is a bumpy ride but still admirable and it works well enough of the time to recommend. This is something we rarely see anymore- a big, complex event film for adults and the potential start of franchise with more to offer than flashy CGI effects. I just hope the next Poirot thriller is stronger than this one.

Two and  Half Stars

-originally published in Maui Time Weekly