Review: Murder on the Orient Express

by Michael Henley

It’s not that I’m asking why we need another filmed version of Murder on the Orient Express. It’s more that I’m asking…why this one?

There’s been no shortage of adaptations of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, which serves as a cornerstone work in her series about hero detective Hercule Poirot—the most famous might be the 1973 Sidney Lumet film (which starred, among others, Albert Finney). More recently, a version for television starring the in-many-ways definitive Poirot, David Suchet, was serviceable enough. There’s always room for it.

But Kenneth Branagh’s new film is another matter. It’s cheap-looking when it should be lavish, bland when it should be wry, stilted when it should be gripping, and artificial when it should be…well, persuasively artificial.

Because, yes. In form, Agatha Christie’s locked-room mysteries are as stolid as they come, depending upon precious contrivances, simple clues and solutions so labyrinthine that they only barely make sense even when they’re revealed. This isn’t a criticism, but a mark of how comforting a Christie mystery story can be when told well, out of such standard pieces. Branagh’s film, however, is not told very well, nor as it much of an actor’s showcase, nor does it substitute in much personality or spectacle. It’s flat, all the way through, and it can’t even pick a proper tone. Just all over the shop, it is.

Branagh stars as Poirot, and that is one of the film’s key tactical errors. Branagh is a gifted actor. Of this there is no dispute. But he is not gifted at playing Hecule Poirot, or at least not here. It’s a mannered and stiff performance, completely controlled by his ostentatious mustache and not-remotely-convincing Belgian accent. He doesn’t disappear into the role; he delivers too much of his dialogue with a wink and self-satisfied smile. It’s a subtly—but thoroughly–annoying performance, bereft of much energy or wit.

And it’s not helped by a screenplay that feels the need to over-motivate Poirot. He’s a man constantly noticing the imperfections of the world, so burdened with his curse (and with an unnecessarily tragic backstory) that after, say, a dead body is found on the same sleeper car he is occupying to travel from Istanbul to France, he has to be talked into lending his skills.

But then, our hopes are not high when, during a remedial opening sequence that shows Hercule Poirot solving a case at the Wailing Wall, he accidentally sets foot in shit and then doggedly steps his other foot in to balance his own personal equation. We always talk about older material being “updated” to accommodate a new audience. But maybe, and I’m just brainstorming here, it’s possible the spirit of Agatha Christie can be given a once over without resorting to poop jokes. We’re not remaking Clue.

The actors are a grab bag of deeply talented people, given perfunctory characters made to move around the chess board of an Agatha Christie mystery. The storytelling is labored and rushed, and many of the characters seem to blend into the background, distinguished simply due to the fact that a famous is playing them, or at least trying to. Johnny Depp, as an odious businessman with a host of debts and enemies, gnashes his teeth satisfactorily, but his usefulness is soon ended after a certain point. There are other actors you’ll recognize. Michelle Pfeiffer. Olivia Colman. Daisy Ridley plays a governess, Willem Dafoe is an Austrian student. Leslie Odem, Jr. is a timid young doctor. Lucy Boynton, so good in last year’s Sing Street, gets a juicy little bit here.

Others are not so lucky. Judi Dench gets a line. Penélope Cruz appears. Derek Jacobi is wasted. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo shows up. Branagh’s Poirot interviews them all in turn, in conversations that should throb with psychological gamesmanship and instead just sort of lie there, inert. I realize that much of this writing has been simply listing actors names, but what else am I to do when the movie fails to make them interesting individuals?

But what truly disappoints is Branagh’s directorial style, which fails to make much of the material. Branagh’s film direction in the past has usually put the characters first. Not here. He introduces several important characters in a flurry, so in love with his simultaneous tracking shots as Poirot moves through the train that the people he’s talking with fail to make an impression. The key reveal of the crucial dead body is done via a lengthy overhead shot, for impenetrable reasons (all it does is rob our ability to process reactions to the corpse, which might be helpful in a murder mystery, you know?) Towards the end, he brings them all outside the snowed in-train and lines them up at a series of tables at the entrance of a tunnel, in a bit of blocking that is as self-consciously stagy as anything you’ll ever see.

We’re not wowed early on, during a series of exterior shots of a departing train that are so laughably fake we half-expect them to pass the Polar Express going the other way. Never once are we convinced that we’re looking at a real train, and when Poirot holds some of his interrogations outside in the middle of an avalanche-struck mountain pass, the green screen work is so half-baked we can’t help but notice that the actors don’t seem the least bit cold. Or nervous, or suspicious, or much of anything.

It’s not a total loss. The 1930s-styled fashions look delightful. The Art Deco-train interiors are designed well. Ms. Christie’s solution to the puzzle remains ingenious. And there are certain actors who are able to snatch minor victories from the jaws of directorial antipathy. I especially liked Pfeiffer’s spunky work and Josh Gad as a pragmatic, booze-guzzling little creep.

But Murder on the Orient Express could have been so much better than it is. Branagh has made some wonderful movies in the past but this one seems to lack a certain…how do you say…joie de vivre.