Kenneth Branagh is a theater man at heart. So his spanking new version of the 1934 Dame Agatha Christie chestnut Murder on the Orient Express – Branagh directs and stars as world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – feels more like an all-star, theatrically confined stage piece than something freshly reimagined for the screen. Its delights, including dazzling production design and period costumers, are decidedly retro, as is the plot: A man is murdered on the Orient Express. Poirot must interrogates a dozen strangers on the train, each a suspect in the bloody homicide.
Alternately cozy and claustrophobic, the film goes about the business of crime solving without breaking a sweat, even after an avalanche strands the train along its route. A major handicap for Branagh is having to stand in the shadow of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film version, a high-style, dryly comic confection featuring the Oscar-nominated Albert Finney as Poirot, as well as the 2010 BBC production with David Suchet, who earned a BAFTA nomination as best actor as the great detective.
Comparisons are odious, but Branagh certainly beats his predecessors in terms of extravagant facial hair – his mustache taking wing like an eagle in full flight and blessed with only a goatee for ballast. That epic special effect dwarves the tonsorial efforts of Finney and Suchet; his flowering hedge is a thing of such tortured splendor that it should be eligible for its own awards. You may spend the film’s duller parts (there are many) obsessing about whether it’s real or not, and how it stays in place during the rough-and-tumble action scenes (there are not many).
Poirot is taking his ease on the Orient Express – his most recent case in Jerusalem tired him so – boarding in Istanbul on his way to Calais. His trainmates in the first-class cabin could fill a police lineup. Johnny Depp appears to be having the most fun as Ratchett, a so-called art dealer with the manners of a mafioso. Both his butler, Masterman (Derek Jacobi), and private secretary, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), wouldn’t be averse to see him take the title of Worst. Boss. Ever. Depp has a terrific, teasing scene with a scrappy Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs. Hubbard, an American widow on the hunt for a new victim, er, husband. Daisy Ridley (the combustible Rey in The Force Awakens) also gets in her licks as Mary Debenham, a governess who keeps having mysterious conversations with Dr. Arbuthnot, a black man exceedingly well played by Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr. The racial switch in the casting – Sean Connery took the role in the 1974 film – shows welcome daring for a remake that plays things stodgily by the book.
The screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) barely allows the other characters to register. Real-life Russian ballet luminary Sergei Polunin is wasted as a Count Andrenyi, a devoted husband agitated about protecting his sick wife (Lucy Boynton) from Poirot’s pesky questions. Willem Dafoe is stuck in the underwritten role of German professor Gerhard Hardman. It’s always a kick to see Dame Judi Dench, here as White Russian Princess Dragomiroff, and the great Olivia Coleman as her besieged maid, Hildegarde Schmidt. But they have literally nothing to do except pull annoyed faces whenever Poirot starts being impertinent. And Penelope Cruz has it worse as the religious introvert Pilar Estravados. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar (her third) for playing the role of the missionary caring for “little brown babies” in Africa, but there’s precious little substance here for a dowdy, de-glamorized Cruz to waste her prayers on.
What’s left is the whodunnit. If you’re read Dame Agatha’s novel or have seen the other film versions, you know what the big reveal is. All that’s left is to watch Branagh take you down the same path and see if anything looks different after a fresh coat of 65mm paint. Not much, sad to say. Branagh – when he’s not tending to that thing on his face – spends a lot of time polishing his own performance, but Poroit is (or should be) more than a collection of mannerisms. In his all-stops-out scene near end, the detective gives his stache a twirl, lines up the prime suspects outside in the snow, makes a show of declaring who’s guilty and acts up a storm. But the impact is muffled. Murder on the Orient Express offers audiences a deluxe journey to the past, but this pokey train goes off the rails about the time all the characters, except for Poirot, cease to matter.