Murder on the Orient Express
Kenneth Branagh keeps Agatha Christie's detective tale on the right track as both director and lead amidst a cast bristling with star power
It is possible, however, that the bar has been reset with the arrival of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, the Belgian sleuth conjured from the imagination of mystery maven Agatha Christie. Played with particular élan by David Suchet during his 70-episode run on ITV, Poirot’s latest big-screen outing, Murder on the Orient Express, is garnished by a moustache of quite magnificent scope, vigour and daring. Like a mighty grey wave rippling across his face, this effort can't be undersold.
Orient Express is the first Poirot feature since 1988 and the fourth adaptation of this particular tale. In it, the world-famous detective, finds himself travelling at short notice on the titular locomotive with a coterie of colourful characters: including corrupt art dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp); Ratchett's flunkey, MacQueen (Josh Gad), and valet, Masterman (Derek Jacobi); Teutonic academic Hardman (Willem Dafoe); fading siren Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); sober missionary Estravados (Penélope Cruz); haughty aristocrat Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench); watchful governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); fragile Russian count Andrenyi (Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin); and black English doctor Arbuthnot (Broadway fixture Leslie Odom Jr.).
Style wise, Orient Express boasts reassuring confidence and while its plot is well worn, Branagh imbues his picture with fresh impetus. He remains a superb film-maker, as comfortable with mega-budget mainstream fare (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella) as he is staging Shakespeare.
The framing is just as accomplished. One early exterior tracking shot watches Poirot as he progresses through the carriages, avoiding, entertaining and observing his fellow travellers as he goes. Later, with only the actors’ voices and body language to convey horror or surprise, the discovery of an unseen corpse is viewed entirely from above in the narrow confines of a plush gangway. Before the end, when the identity of the malefactor slides into view, Poirot is confronted by a line-up of suspects seated before him, arranged as if in a tableau, the last supper of truth and justice.
In the lead, Branagh is impossible to dislike. His iteration of Poirot constitutes a man of depth and contradictions. So extreme a perfectionist that he would rather two shoes be soiled by manure than one alone, his faintly comic air is propped up by unbending politeness and natty sartorial grace. This urbane, worldly multi-linguist spends his time giggling at the musings of Dickens and flitting between continental destinations, savouring local culture along the way.
Far from flawless, Orient Express arguably ends too soon and even imposes a vacuous, clumsy lost romance on its hero. The latter element is particularly silly, reducing Poirot to someone who seeks guidance from old photographs of people none of us know. The cast, too, sees its individual arcs unevenly served. Not one person is weak, indeed most are as watchable as one would imagine (Jacobi, in particular, excels) but a lean running time and dense narrative leave little room for memorable moments.
Murder on the Orient Express is now on general release in cinemas.