In a world where billion dollar superhero and sci-fi epics dominate the blockbuster scene and the TV schedules are packed to bursting with complex conspiracies that take tens of hours to unravel, a simple two-hour murder mystery film feels quite novel, even a little quaint. Kenneth Branagh, director and star of this new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s sublime Murder on the Orient Express, has chosen to overcome this feeling with sheer star power. Much like the Sidney Lumet version of the story from the ‘70s, Branagh’s cast is a murderer’s row of superstars, whose collective charisma and charm elevate the slightly overcooked material.
Orient Express is, for good reason, one of Christie’s best loved and most adapted tales. It’s pretty much perfectly plotted, a deeply satisfying train-bound whodunit with a truly iconic conclusion. What Branagh’s version adds, Michael Green’s script changing very little of the story itself, is sheer spectacle. Sweeping shots of dusty bazaars and creaking mountains give way to brilliant visual trickery on the train itself and plenty of probing close-ups (often around mirrors) as world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) attempts to get inside the minds of his suspects in a brutal murder case.
Shady grifter Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp) has been stabbed 12 times in his bed, and the killer must be among the other first class passengers. Fear and defensiveness set in immediately, exacerbated by the avalanche-caused derailment of the train’s front car, stranding everyone in the icy wilds. The most obvious suspect is Ratchett’s assistant MacQueen (Josh Gad), but he has a strong alibi, and none of the other passengers seem to be telling the whole truth about anything. Poirot and his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) set up their interrogations, lavishly designed one-on-one chats between Branagh and his incredible cast.
These are fun, especially with Willem Dafoe (Austrian professor Gerhardt) and the Shakespearean thesps like Judi Dench (Russian Princess Dragomiroff) and Derek Jacobi (butler Mr Masterman), but not all of them have the electricity that you’d like. As a part of a massive ensemble, every actor has to slightly tone themselves down, and while Michelle Pfeiffer (wealthy traveller Mrs Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (governess Mary Debenham), and Leslie Odom Jr (military doctor Arbuthnot) all make strong impressions, others get lost in the shuffle. The most notable victims of this are Penelope Cruz as Spanish missionary Pilar Estravados and Count and Countess Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton), whose diplomatic passports keep them separate from the rest of the cast and thus are often forgotten about.
It’s wonderful to see this classic story get such a sumptuous big budget makeover, the opulence of the Orient Express and its journey captured in rich, colourful detail. Unfortunately, this bombast (Branagh’s Poirot is far more of an action hero than Albert Finney or David Suchet’s versions) can sometimes give way to melodrama. A mawkish score is always reaching for poignancy, but never quite landing, especially in the last scene. This is magnificently laid out in visual terms, but is overemotional, which ends up being less powerful than the more subdued ending that Lumet provided.
Action aside, Branagh is a good Poirot, balancing the character’s inherent comedy with the grave seriousness of the situation. His moustache is also truly resplendent, the film’s best special effect. 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express is not the greatest screen adaptation of Christie – my money is on the BBC’s And Then There Were None for that honour – but it’s still a very enjoyable murder mystery that should appeal to all ages and demands big-screen viewing.