Branagh’s star-studded version of Christie is beautiful, fun
I’ll confess to a latent fondness for mystery novels, and especially that of Dame Agatha Christie, whose books were perennial take-aways from the public libraries of my childhood. Nothing quite tickled my adolescent fancy as depictions of veddy, veddy British manor life contrapuntally laced with the frisson of cold-blooded murder. So I was intrigued by the plan to remake one of Miss Agatha’s classic stories, Murder on the Orient Express, with Kenneth Branagh as director and star (in the role of the Belgian mastermind detective Hercule Poirot).
Branagh, who is most renowned as an actor and director of Shakespeare both on stage and on screen (his cinematic Henry V surpassed Olivier’s, in my opinion), is, nevertheless, no stranger to the mystery thriller genre. One of his first directing efforts was Dead Again, a stylish film noir detective story, and he played sleuth Kurt Wallander for several years on PBS. So, the man knows his way around a whodunit.
This new adaptation hews fairly closely to the details of the original novel. A disparate group of travelers, ostensibly strangers to one another, are journeying together on the luxury train that once linked Istanbul and Paris. One of the passengers, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a dislikable and shady American businessman, is found stabbed to death in the middle of the trip. Fortunately, Monsieur Poirot is on hand to solve the crime.
The tropes of the genre are quite familiar: A series of interviews revealing possibly incriminating details; protestations of innocence; a few bursts of menace; more than a few coincidences. And eventually, an astonishing solution by the master detective.
Branagh is aware, of course, of the pitfalls of any such mystery plot, and especially this one, a cultural touchstone known by so many. So, Branagh the director dresses the movie in sumptuous sets and costumes, reveling in the exotic locales of Jerusalem, Istanbul, and the Eastern European countryside through which the train travels. He also delights film fans by filling the cast with good-looking stars such as Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad and Penelope Cruz.
And Branagh the actor creates a Poirot quite distinct from the prim, fussy characterization of David Suchet on TV and Albert Finney in the 1974 big screen version. Branagh’s Poirot is tired, brooding and equivocal, though he also does possess a most opulent mustache.
The film is beautiful to look at, and also entertaining. The direction is assured and accessible, though this viewer wished that the director was a little less in love with his own sorrowful visage on camera.
None of the performances, beyond Branagh’s, are particularly noteworthy because none of them are any more than archetypes, nor do any of them have much time on screen. Each star gets a little turn, and then the story must chug along.
Given the strictures of the genre, Murder on the Orient Express is a trip worth taking, but perhaps not one you will remember vividly a few months from now.
Also playing in December: It’s last chance for Oscar releases with I Tonya, a fictionalized version of the Tonya Harding story, Dec. 8; The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, Dec. 20; Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game, Dec. 25; and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, starring Annette Bening, Dec. 29. Oh, and a little sci-fi sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, opens Dec. 15.