It was only a matter of time before Agatha Christie’s mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot made his way back to the screen in one form or another. That time and has come and it’s Kenneth Branagh both behind the camera and in front it of it, donning a massive mustache in his remake of Murder on the Orient Express. In front of the camera, Branagh is game to bring Poirot to life with plenty of gusto and charm. It’s behind the camera that Branagh struggles. Murder on the Orient Express starts with plenty of promise before the eponymous murder takes place and then the film meanders with little suspense for anyone slightly familiar with the Christie’s twist at the end, one of the most famous twists of all time.
On board the famed Orient Express in the dead of winter, a number of passengers are ready to undergo the lengthy continental trip. Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is a late addition to the train thanks to his connections with the train’s manager Bouc (Tom Bateman). Among the passengers is Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a boorish American with scared visage who claims to deal in antiques. He drinks to excess and is paranoid following a series of threatening notes left in his cabin. Ratchett implores Poirot to help him but the Belgian detective refuses. In the dead of night, the train is derailed in the midst of a snowstorm, where it’s discovered that Edward Ratchett has been stabbed 12 times in his sleep. But the World’s Greatest Detective is on the train and Hercule Poirot will get to the bottom of this heinous crime where each and every passenger is a suspect.
There’s a wide array of passengers from all walks of life, featuring Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Penélope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. You’d be forgiven if you have trouble remembering the names and occupations of each character because the film can only dedicate so much time to each of these suspected killers. As each of these characters are grilled by an aggressive Poirot, the cracks emerge in their stories as it seems that each person on the train is hiding some kind of secret from their past that links them to the recently deceased.
Murder on the Orient Express starts out with plenty of promise, focusing on a small case that is quickly solved by Hercule Poirot’s impeccable skills of detections. There’s a wit and energy to these early scenes that allow Branagh to bring all sorts of charm and panache to the Belgian detective. Then the murder occurs. It’s an incredibly odd situation where a movie becomes less and less interesting following the murder of a character. In a flash, the humor that worked so well in the first 30 minutes vanishes. Then Murder on the Orient Express more or less becomes a procedural drama of interrogation emphasized by flashback. Perhaps the movie will work for those completely unaware of the twist, but since I had seen Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version and knew the identity of the culprit meant there was simply no suspense to be found, making the decision to completely abandon the moments of levity more deadly than the murder that incites the mystery.
Credit where it’s due, Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarkloukos have crafted an impressive looking film. The production design is immaculate and often leaves the film with a gorgeous sheen of artistry. Much in the same way, Branagh really shines as Hercule Poirot. His mustache is a beast unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Branagh relishes in the Beligan accent and brings some real personality to the legendary sleuth. But there’s just no tension in the film, so the visceral beauty and Branagh’s performance ring hollow. Despite my issues with Murder on the Orient Express, I’d still be happy to see Branagh reprise the role as Hercule Poirot in a story that isn’t dependent on an incredibly famous twist.
Murder on the Orient Express starts great and ends well, but it’s that middle stretch where the film struggles mightily. The mystery as it unfolds just isn’t compelling despite the best efforts of its impressive ensemble cast. Branagh is much better in the leading role than his as a director in this story, and he just can’t craft a mystery that’s worth investing. In a lot of regards, Murder on the Orient Express is as mechanical as the train, chugging along before halting to a stop in the snow. We all knew there’d be a murder. We just didn’t expect that it’d kill all the movie.