By Kim Hughes
Does the world need another adaptation of crime classic Murder on the Orient Express or another high-camp, weirdly moustachioed embodiment of Hercule Poirot, author Agatha Christie’s most enduring character?
The box office for director, co-producer and star Kenneth Branagh’s new film will ultimately answer that question. But perhaps a better question is: what exactly was Branagh’s motivation here, given a perfectly excellent 1974 Sidney Lumet version of the same twisty tale, which keeners will note earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar.
Nothing in this latest iteration substantively stretches, expands or toys with the original (disregarding the slightest of tweaks). So, this is an exercise in… Branagh’s ability to faithfully hit all the right notes? Tee up more Christie reworks — something alluded to in the new movie.
Alas, Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is beautiful but boring. The impossibly exotic backdrop of 1930s-era Istanbul garlands the earliest scenes; cobalt skies and glistening snow as the famed luxury train bullets through eastern Europe. Inside, the furs and snappy tailoring of the elite and their helpers underscore the peculiar allure of train travel in general, and train travel abroad in particular. And… that’s about it.
As pop culture enthusiasts know, there is something rotten at the core of this scene, and the world’s most famous detective — ostensibly rejuvenating while rocketing toward another case — is sucked into the vortex of a murder most foul.
The murder is actually the least interesting thing. A dead thug – so what? I was more curious to know what’s in that cake. Those fancy cocktails. How does one bathe in such tight quarters? Are the sheets super-soft? Enquiring minds, or at least a mind not otherwise particularly engaged.
Despite a high-wattage cast — Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, a bizarrely underused Penélope Cruz and the director himself — Orient Express lacks sparkle, as if the actors are in on the story’s absurd murder-plot scheme, and keeping everything on the down-low so as not attract unwanted attention.
Even Depp, playing a facially scarred and abrasive mobster, simmers but never boils over, making one long for a smidge of Captain Jack Sparrow… or a least a dash of Joe Pesci. Others seem on autopilot, notably Dench who more or less texted this one in. Murder on the Orient Express would have been much more alive had Branagh (forgive me) let his cast go off the rails while he stuck scrupulously to the source material, if that was the necessary compromise. Ah well. They can’t all be Cinderella.
Murder on the Orient Express. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Tom Bateman, Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom, Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Sergei Polunin. Opens wide November 10.