It's considered one of the greatest whodunnits of all time. Or rather, one of the greatest whodidn'ts. Penned by Agatha Christie back in 1934, and first adapted into a film in 1974, Murder on the Orient Express takes a train full of passengers, kills one of them off, then asks "probably the greatest detective in the world" to find the person responsible. Naturally, everyone's a suspect, especially to the famous Hercule Poirot. He's soon slinging questions and making deductions, in a story full of mystery and suspense.
At least, that's how it played out both in the book and the initial film. But try as it might, Kenneth Branagh's new version doesn't quite manage the same feat. The British actor and filmmaker stars, directs and fills his locomotive with high-profile performers including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley. And yet despite their efforts — and the fine work of Pfeiffer and Ridley in particular — the end result is far from an engaging or intriguing journey, or even one worth taking.
We first meet Branagh's arrogant (and ludicrously moustachioed) Belgian investigator as he's fussing over eggs at the Wailing Wall, before showing off his prowess in a case that involves a priest, a rabbi and an imam. Once the job is done, Poirot is eager for a break, but duty calls even when he's mid-railway trip. After the discovery of a body with a dozen stab wounds, our hero sets to work. Among the potential culprits caught in his gaze: a princess and her servant, a count and a countess, a nun, a doctor, a governess, a professor, a car dealer, a divorcee, a butler and a secretary.
Working with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Denial, Cinderella), Branagh approaches the tale with aesthetic flair — shot with the same 65mm cameras used on Dunkirk, Murder on the Orient Express is a feast of roaming shots, inventive angles and visual detail, with the production and costume design teams also putting on a show. There's little sign of the same texture or care in the rest of the movie, however, with the director himself the main offender. As depicted on the screen by everyone from Orson Welles to Alfred Molina, Poirot has always been a bundle of quirks, but here he's as pompous and self-satisfied as he is eccentric — while also being presented as a genius and a source of laughs. Christie herself grew tired of the character after he appeared in more than 80 of her stories. Watching Branagh's performance, you probably will as well.
Perhaps we've just seen too many brilliant masterminds of late, considering the number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations we've all sat through. Or perhaps there's simply more to portraying a famous character than wearing ridiculous facial hair, acting smug and leaning on an accent. Also hindering the film is the obvious and easy way that Poirot pieces everything together, and Branagh's failure to properly utilise his ensemble cast. If the film's protagonist can join the dots faster than he can brush his moustache, audiences aren't likely to be enthralled. And sticking a heap of well-known faces in the same frame isn't the same as giving them all something to do.