Of all the Agatha Christie novels, Murder on the Orient Express has one of the most memorable resolutions, which makes it a little problematic when it comes to adaptations: many of those in the audience, I presume, are going to know who did it, taking a lot of the fun out of this whodunit.
Knowing how this mystery would resolve, I found myself primarily doing two things while watching Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation: looking for chinks in the armor that might reveal logical inconsistencies (this Christie mystery has always been one of her most… far-fetched) and taking in the lush production design.
There were a few of the former here and there, but outweighed, I think, by the elegant and all-together pleasant atmosphere of the latter: this version of Murder on the Orient Express is finely-produced (even overproduced) thing that sufficiently renders the classic story while delivering some surface charms of its own.
Branagh himself stars as world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, though it’s his ridiculous mustache that really takes center stage; a Poirot for the hipster age, the self-aware production even depicts him sleeping with a mustache guard.
An opening scene in Jerusalem is one of the movie’s few derivations from the source material, with the movie building up the character as some kind of detective superhero, shades of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes as he solves a mystery – and subdues the culprit – in front of an angry mob at the Wailing Wall.
With a greater focus on Poirot than the material calls for, this scene and others at the end seem to be setting up the character as part of a potential franchise; there’s even reference to another Poirot mystery.
But then it’s off to the titular Orient Express, where Poirot boards along with other colorful characters played by the likes of Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, and Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin.
A good cast, if not quite up to the level of Sidney Lumet’s ‘74 version, which starred Albert Finney as Poirot alongside Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, et. al.
There’s a murder, of course, and while stuck atop a bridge due to an avalanche, Poirot’s friend and the train’s director Bouc (Tom Bateman) begs the detective to investigate to avoid complications with Yugoslav police when they arrive.
With so many characters crammed in here, few get more than a scene or two to shine; Pfeiffer, however, makes the most of her screentime and threatens to steal the film away from Branagh’s mustache whenever she’s around. Ridley and Odom Jr. have more to do than the others, but neither makes a lasting impression. Cruz, Jacobi, and Dafoe, I felt, were particularly underutilized.
But the lush production, which includes a superb recreation of the classic line with stately interiors and a sleek black casing, and snowy exteriors atop the Yugoslav bridge, add a little something to the production. Only excessive CGI during scenes of the lightning storm and avalanche feel off, bringing to mind Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express.
Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express has been the recipient of wildly mixed reviews, from scathing to emphatic. Truth be told, there’s little appeal here for those familiar with the story, but I think anyone new to the material will find it entirely engaging. And in 2017, a solid rendition of an adult murder mystery at the multiplex is a good-enough thing.