Murder on the Orient Express Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
The snooty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is legendary mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s most famous creation, and the 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express is the most famous of Poirot’s dozens of cases, known (at least by its title and general concept of a murder investigation on a transcontinental railway) even to people unfamiliar with Christie’s work. The story has already been adapted for the screen three times, including a 1974 theatrical version nominated for six Oscars and a 2010 episode of the long-running Poirot TV series, which eventually featured every Poirot case Christie penned. It’s hard to think of a good reason to bring this familiar character’s most familiar adventure to the screen yet again, and director and star Kenneth Branagh never quite finds one.
Part of the problem is the general fustiness of Poirot’s adventures, which are often more like word problems than narratives. In Poirot’s world, suspects are almost always content to sit together in a room as the renowned detective painstakingly lays out the facts of each case, eventually arriving at the identity of the culprit only after explaining the significance of every minor detail. In the 1974 film, Poirot spends nearly half the movie bloviating at the 13 train passengers who are suspects in the overnight murder of a shady American art dealer. Here, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green give Poirot a lot more to do, running across and around the train as it lies stuck in a snowdrift in the middle of the mountains of Eastern Europe, but it’s just window dressing on a plot that is still built around Poirot delivering nonstop exposition.
In addition to Branagh as Poirot, the cast is stacked with stars, from veterans (Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz) to newcomers (Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.), each of whom gets a few brief moments to make an impression. Only Pfeiffer, as a cynical, oft-married older woman, actually succeeds, with most of her co-stars merely serving as puzzle pieces for Poirot to put into place. Branagh gives a less histrionic performance than some previous Poirots, allowing his ostentatious mustache (a Poirot trademark) to provide most of the flair. As a director, he overcompensates for the staid, inert material with flashy, distracting visuals, from a dizzying tracking shot as Poirot walks the length of the train to a lineup of suspects that mimics Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Branagh and Green even give the unflappable Poirot moments of doubt and anguish, but they never get in the way of the schematic story, which plays out just as it has in every previous iteration. Poirot is nothing if not reliable.