Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On The Orient Express – 2017’s take on Agatha Christie’s 1934 dead-body caper – reminds of a cinematic time capsule that was dug up and never dusted off. It’s not the first, nor even fourth time Christie’s words would be uttered by actors aboard their high-class locomotive prison. Sidney Lumet’s 1974 classic shines with old-Hollywood prestige, Alfred Molina stars in a 2001 modern-day take, Japan televised a 2015 miniseries event overseas – so how would Branagh differentiate? Apparently by staying devout to Christie’s 1930s aesthetic, conception and tone. A relic whose connotation translates to “Back in my day!,” rolling slowly down the tracks for an almost two-hour whodunit that runs out of steam far before reaching desired conclusions.
Branagh stands-in as star detective Hercule Poirot, an investigator whose reputation is outshined only by his feral-animal-lookin’ mustache. In Istanbul, with the help of philandering companion Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot boards the Orient Express – a lavish railroad transport meant for the rich and pampered. Alas, comfort turns to chaos once an avalanche strands the travelers until rescuers can dig them out, and worse more, one of the passengers is found dead when Bouc’s Orient comes to an unexpected halt.
A corpse means there’s a murderer on the train and a case for Poirot to crack. Is it Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), the double-crossing financial consultant? Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the innocent young beauty? Everyone is a suspect, and only Poirot has the expertise to deduce who is responsible.
Ensemble intrigue scrolls a laundry list of brilliant actors, but the game at play is undercut by flat editing and unnecessary nudges. Part of me wishes Branagh would have opened with the Orient boarding process and skipped Istanbul’s introductory anecdotes, given how a few characters drop hints earlier than needed. Debenham and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) for one, who make reference to collusion before Poirot’s very eyes. It’s obvious that clues and shady yarn-spinning will attempt to throw every scent, just not at the unsubtle levels of forcible “mysteriousness” that never initiate very much of a procedural hunt. It’s less a fact-analysis exemplification of judiciary conquest, and more a cinematic vessel for Mortdecai-level facial hair jokes.
That’s not to say Branagh’s Poirot is a slouch – indeed, quite the opposite. Sleuthy connections are sparked by the mere mispronunciation of Austrian dialect while cranial gears churn scenarios from the slightest misplaced pipe cleaner. You must understand that in Murder On The Orient Express, Poirot is a God figure and he acts appropriately (only two souls know when you lie, Poirot and whomever you pray to – actual dialogue). Never bullish in egotism, only matter-of-fact in personal agreement. It is, in a very Granddad-bests-the-baddies way, utterly delightful because of Branagh’s incomparable wittiness – when Poirot isn’t being a goofball genius or lamenting over his lost lover in these random, weirdly unaddressed widow moments.
As Branagh questions his way through innocent-to-a-fault suspects – Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and more – Poirot essentially chases his tail in a circle. There’s never a moment where the impossible doesn’t seem most viable as a solution. As Christie herself once told, the motive of a young Armstrong girl’s death is still central to plot – secrets being coaxed out of a den of liars. Depp’s businessman a sleazy, gangster-tied art dealer. Cruz, not always the saintly woman of Christ. It’s sure something to watch Poirot toy with his prey like a cat pawing at a dead bird – Branagh straight-up telling Depp he hates his face – but length makes for a bumpy ride.
Inside the five-star train car design, production places viewers into the lap of [insert any King/Queen who adored fanciful treatment]. Attraction to royal travel accommodations is real, from a flame-spitting kitchen area to fully-stocked drink lounge (no prohibition internationally). If only scenic framing of a coal-powered locomotive being encased by powdery dunes shared the same kind of visual draw instead of digital blandness – luxury contrasted by coldness. Istanbul’s rock wall set opens on such a sunny, desert-oasis vibe, only to then favor animation that cannot be saved by the unnatural vibrancy of colors shooting from character eyes (blues pierce against white, snowy backdrops).
Murder On The Orient Express is a chilly excursion with out-of-date charms – telling of period respects, but unconvincing in era transformations. Racial themes land with awkward pause while an outrageously mustachioed Hercule Poirot giggles childishly at Charles Dickens prose. Was Kenneth Branagh in it for the mustache alone? Two thick-bristled brushes laid atop one another with a rustic soul patch below? A double-decker nose tickler with layers, curves and body (this mustache, seriously)? Such a mighty lip sweater attempts to hypnotize audiences, but it’s all a trick to distract from a mystery that’s simply blowing hot air up your [redacted].
In the end, this is just a musty, decades-old detective’s tale that feels every bit of its age and easily-explained plot – not quite this year’s blast from the past, even with supporting actors delivering as audaciously as expected (Dafoe always shifty, Dench a cross senior, you know).
Murder On The Orient Express is an antique mystery that chugs along at 5-miles an hour without any turns that might jolt viewers in the slightest.