Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017) 1 out of 4 stars.
Celebrated British mystery writer Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express is, as are most of her works, a tidy little masterpiece of crime, punishment and psychology. Featuring one of her two main detectives, the fussy little Belgian Hercule Poirot (her other being the very English Miss Marple), the book mixes intrigue and poignant heartbreak to make a very satisfying thriller. Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film adaptation – with an ensemble cast that included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Sean Connery and Albert Finney (nominated for an Oscar) as Poirot – did the source material ample justice. We didn’t really need another version.
And yet, along comes Kenneth Branagh, he who gave us, in his heyday, such fine Shakespearean adaptations as Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, before moving on to merely entertaining, if forgettable, non-Shakespearean fare like Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Cinderella. Perhaps the play really is the thing, for him, with novels but a pale copy, for here he fails miserably to capture any of the magic of either the original book or first movie. I have my own personal feelings about the dangers of period films that rely on CGI for their vistas and effects, but the look of the movie is the least of its issues. All problems can be traced to the overlarge ego of Poirot.
As described by Christie, Poirot, is a brilliant – if also arrogant, mannered and particular – criminal investigator. Mostly, though, he is a device through which the mystery is solved; he is never the main event. Branagh – perhaps because he is playing Poirot, himself – has decided to make the man a melancholy obsessive, complete with backstory, and throw him headfirst into the action, running, jumping and striking down his enemies with gusto. As he does in the books, Poirot sports a rather large mustache, which is played for laughs, as always, but excessively so. Everything, in fact, having to do with Poirot is excessive. Sadly, the rest of the story is not as developed.
Which is too bad, as the cast – including Michelle Pfeiffer (Mother!), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Strickland on NBC’s Smash) and Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), among others – is excellent. Given the sogginess of the plot and inert (if also strangely frenetic) performance of Branagh (who can’t even muster a decent French accent), there is very little anyone else can do to save this train from crashing. If you haven’t ever read the book or seen the first film, then know that the story centers around a murder that takes place on, yes, the Orient Express, which travels from Istanbul to Paris. “Everyone is a suspect,” as the tagline reads. Too bad no one cares.