Hercule Poirot is an intriguing character. A control freak who is also a brilliant detective with a Belgian accent and incredible moustache, Poirot was first introduced by Agatha Christie in her 1920 novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles. He was so popular that he solved crimes in thirty-four of her books, the most famous of which being 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express. In 1974, Sydney Lumet adapted Orient Express into a well-regarded film starring Albert Finney, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Poirot. Also in the cast were such luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York, among others. Now, forty-three years later, Kenneth Branagh has made a new version with his own all-star cast.
It is 1934 and Poirot (Branagh, who has been nominated for Oscars as an actor, writer and director during his career) finds himself on the titular train as he heads from one case to the next. While he is onboard, there is a murder and his friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman from this summer’s Amy Schumer comedy Snatched), who works on the train, asks him to solve it. The rest of the film is Poirot interrogating suspects until he finally discovers the truth.
There is certainly no shortage of interesting characters on the train and they are all well-cast. There is Daisy Ridley (Rey in the ongoing Star Wars films) as the mysterious Miss Debenham, Leslie Odom Jr. as a respectable doctor, Penelope Cruz (a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner in 2009 for Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as a woman of God, three-time Oscar nominee Johnny Depp as a crooked art dealer, Josh Gad (who recently co-starred as attorney Sam Friedman in the Thurgood Marshall biopic Marshall) as his assistant, classical British actor Derek Jacobi as his servant, three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer (recently seen in mother!) as the husband-seeking Caroline Hubbard, seven-time Oscar nominee Judi Dench (fresh from her role as Queen Victoria in Victoria and Abdul) as the Princess Dragomiroff, Olivia Colman (from the excellent British mystery series Broadchurch) as her assistant and two-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe (from this year’s indie The Florida Project) as a professor.
It is a very impressive cast. Unfortunately, everyone besides Poirot is a plot device. I could not tell you a single thing about them besides what is pertinent to Poirot’s case. They are there for their presence, not their performances. They are introduced, get their scene or two talking to Poirot, then are moved off-screen in favor of the next character.
The only performance that does stand out is director/producer/star Branagh’s as Poirot. He is a showy character and Branagh has fun with him. He makes Poirot likeable despite his arrogance. It is an enjoyable performance, not as good as Finney’s, but still quite good. Branagh’s performance is also the aspect of the film that fares the best when compared to the 1974 version. This is because, though his acting is good, his direction leaves a lot to be desired. His pacing is clunky and some of his shot choices are questionable. There is one sequence set on the train that is shown entirely from overhead. This adds nothing to the scene except distraction and seems to be there just so Branagh could show off his set.
The film’s opening sequence, showing Poirot solving a case in Jerusalem, is amusing and seems to be the setup for a fun adventure. But once the train leaves the station, Murder on the Orient Express really slows down. The screenplay, by Michael Green (who also co-wrote this year’s Logan and Blade Runner 2049), is mostly surface with very little depth. It is just setup after setup after setup. Poirot is a brilliant detective, but his sleuthing is just not as exciting as it should be. Branagh never effectively builds suspense for this story.
After a while, a suspense-less thriller about a group of mysterious strangers acting weird becomes a study in behavior instead of a compelling mystery. That being said, the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express (106 minutes without the end credits) does feature some entertaining behavior. The setup is okay, if a little slow, and Branagh makes for a pretty good Poirot. The production design (by Jim Clay) is solid and the cast is tremendous (even if most of them do not get a chance to shine). Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is far from a bad movie. But it is disappointingly slight and forgettable. If you have a yearning to see this story onscreen, I would stick with the 1974 version.
3 out of 5
Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot
Tom Bateman as Bouc
Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett
Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham
Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot
Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard
Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen
Derek Jacobi as Edward Henry Masterman
Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff
Olivia Colman as Hildegarde Schmidt
Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados
Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman
Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Biniamino Marquez
Sergei Polunin as Count Rudolph Andrenyi
Lucy Boynton as Countess Elena Andrenyi
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay by Michael Green