Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is undoubtedly a grand production, but lacks the elegant simplicity to be a truly first-class entertainment.
Unlike Sydney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation, this is less a starry, lavishly-upholstered murder mystery than a modern-day blockbuster that just seems to be based on an Agatha Christie novel.
Festooned with an elaborate, white-frosted ‘tasche – as much Christmas ornament as facial hair – and a gleam of resolve in his eyes, Branagh is immediately iconic and accessible in the role. Rather than devote itself to the intricacies of detection and deduction, the film chooses to delve into the inner life of the inquisitive Belgian sleuth himself.
Hurriedly establishing Poirot’s well-known eccentricities – his Epicurean appetite, his fastidious fashion sense, his moral certainty – Murder On The Orient Express (2017) adds to them a painfully Utopian worldview, which he entrusts in private to a framed photo of his non-canonical lost love and, indeed, candidly to anyone who cares to ask the question.
However, if Michael Green’s screenplay lets us into Poitor’s heart – which he unsheathes to a framed photo of his lost love – it keeps us out of his head. Clues are uncovered and quickly discarded. Reveals are made suddenly and unsatisfyingly. It’s all payoff; no setup. The audience is given no real chance to play along.
The detective’s motives are, after all, of less relevance than those of the suspects; who are bundled together in close, if luxuriant, quarters when the train is derailed by a CGI avalanche. In the following moments of which, a body is discovered in one of the cabins…
The passenger manifest includes a gaunt, scar-faced gangster (Johnny Depp; leaning into the skid of his public persona with a succession of villainous roles); his overqualified, alcoholic secretary (a recriminatory Josh Gad); a dry yet watery-eyed valet (Derek Jacobi); a fearsome Princess (Judi Dench; still less of a dragon than Wendy Hiller in the original film); a coolly, impulsive Hungarian count (Sergei Polunin) and his loopy wife (Lucy Boynton); and the deeply religious, sin-obsessed Pilar (Penelope Cruz in a variation of the role for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar).
Poirot himself is initially unwilling to get involved: already en route back to England to lend his deductive talents to another case, has to be emotionally blackmailed by his friend Bouc (an energetically rakish Tom Bateman) into solving the murder. If he doesn’t, it’s likely the Yugoslavian police will blame Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a principled army doctor, who happens to be black, or cheery car salesman Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who’s Hispanic.
Throw in a speccy Austrian racialist (Willem Dafoe) spouting segregationist claptrap and Daisy Ridley’s cool, unflinching governess and you end up with a level of social commentary – one that, being honest, the perhaps less than enlightened Ms. Christie might not have approved.
There are increased stakes, too, as befits a modern blockbuster, insofar as various firearms make an appearance, generally poking out tastefully from beneath expensive napkins; though Chekov eventually prevails. It’s beyond imagining that David Suchet’s TV portrayal, with his mincing walk, as a conventional man of action. Branagh even gets a foot-chase, which is surprising given the story is supposedly set amid the self-contained grandeur of the famous luxury sleeper service.
Branagh’s use of God’s-eye-view aerial shots, peering down into the carriages through the roof, also robs much of the claustrophobia that Lumet used to such notable effect. Patrick Doyle’s jazzy, inobtrusive score and Haris Zambarloukos’ crisp, rich cinematography lend a classic Hollywood sweep, but there’s a disappointing lack of flair and intellect.
The new Murder on the Orient Express is a padded armchair of a film, into which one may luxuriantly sink, but one that is unlikely to challenge the little grey cells.