Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp
Running time: 114 minutes
When a seedy gangster, well trained in the art of enemy making, is murdered aboard the titular train, each one of the carriage’s array of first-class passengers is a suspect. It’s up to world famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) and his world class moustache to solve the mystery.
There’s a scene in Wes Craven’s 1996 slasher Scream in which cine-literate, movie supernerd Randy Meeks exclaims ecstatically; “There’s a very simple formula: everybody’s a suspect!” While I’ll never turn down an opportunity to quote my favourite movie character of all time, there’s also relevance to my shameless fan-boying, as this sentiment also rings loud and perhaps a little too clear throughout Branagh’s retelling of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit.
A handful of people, restricted to a single location, and one of them is a killer. The quintessential murder-mystery, right? The question here then is how does one remain faithful to a source material that is the original quintessential murder-mystery and create something that is anything other than painfully conventional.
The answer is: with great difficulty.
There is no doubt that Branagh – who directs and stars – is just as meticulous behind the camera as he is in front of it, here. He weaves an intricate, lavishly shot period thriller that has more twists, revelations, and red herrings than a delayed First Great Western service from London Paddington. The confined, snow-covered setting ramps up both the tension and the number of layers you’ll want to put on, as every object, every detail, and everyone is quickly up for examination as Hercule Poirot – that’s Her-cule, not Her-cules to you – starts to work his scrupulous magic. However, in doing so, character depth and development is spread all too thinly between our band of on-board high-borners, and the already cramped and convoluted narrative starts to feel more and more like a Friday evening tube ride during peak time.
The only one to be given any substantial characterisation is, of course, Branagh’s sharp and brilliant hero. Aside from the obvious dazzling intellect and near-psychic ability to sniff out a guilty criminal, there are more subtle, intriguing hints to past tragedy, internal moral conflicts, and even a cheeky nod to (potential) future appearances. But even he MOUSTACHE MOUSTACHE MOUSTACHE occasionally, and rather lazily, falls back into the role of contrived, thinking-out-loud plot explainer. And despite piercing wit, undeniable likeability, and some incredible night-time grooming gear, 2017 Poirot sadly isn’t a patch on the original screen Mr Mystery, David Suchet.
Similarly, the A-list ensemble cast – that includes such Hollywood heavy-hitters as Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Judy Dench, and Willem Dafoe – feels largely wasted here. In rather repetitive fashion, the narrative appears to rigidly dedicate an allocated amount of time to each of them, before swiftly moving onto the next. As a result, there’s almost too much to process at times, and even with the melodrama, very little to care about, in a film where the writing on the front of DVD case will be significantly more impressive than the writing on the back, and where the deepest thing about it is quite clearly the studio’s pockets.
Despite going to such (financial) lengths to bring a Christie adaptation into the realms of 21st century blockbuster, there is the overriding sense here that the transition from book to screen is far from smooth. Stylish, but severely flawed, it is disappointing that Murder on the Orient Express will likely be remembered solely for its facial hair – but, by god, WHAT facial hair to be remembered for…