Despite its status as one of Agatha Christie’s finest works, it’s been more than forty years since superlative whodunnit Murder on the Orient Express last graced the big screen with Sidney Lumet’s celebrated adaptation. By modern standards that makes Kenneth Branagh’s remake long overdue. It’s a shame, then, that it’s hardly worth the wait as Branagh struggles to prevent this handsomely-mounted thriller from falling off the rails.
Though Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) throws a few mischievous tweaks into his script, the plot essentially remains the same. The meticulous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, sporting an inconceivably dramatic ‘tache) joins an eclectic array of first-class passengers aboard the titular locomotive. What begins as a exquisite trip across Eastern Europe swiftly takes a more sinister track when a fellow passenger is discovered dead in a locked cabin. Everyone is a suspect as the Belgian bloodhound starts sniffing for clues and deduces that the murderer must still be hiding on board the train.
Like Lumet’s effort, Branagh has attracted a glittering cast to play his menagerie of eccentric travellers. Dame Julie Dench is a fussy Russian aristocrat; Olivia Coleman plays her timid servant; Michelle Pfeiffer is a flirty widow; Daisy Ridley shines as a sharp-witted governess; Leslie Odom Jr plays a noble doctor; Johnny Depp is a shifty gangster, while Josh Grad and Derek Jacobi play his twitchy secretary and tetchy butler; and Willem Defoe rounds out the main players as a disagreeable Austrian academic.
The starry nature of the cast is outshone only be the majesty of the cinematography. Shot in 65mm, the movie basks in the luxury and lavishness of the era, the camera soaring over snowy mountain tops and plummeting down vertiginous drops as the train teeters upon a towering trestle after being halted by an avalanche. This indulgent style adapts surprisingly well to the claustrophobic confines of the carriages, Branagh deploying elegant tracking shots and woozy angles that can be so effective in building tension.
That the movie then fails to sustain any sense of suspense is surprising. Part of the problem is that modern audiences are so well-versed in the genre that all the old-fashioned tricks and misdirections inevitably underwhelm – one deduction relating to a smudged passport is so blindingly obvious it brings into question Poirot’s status as the world’s greatest sleuth.
More troublesome, though, is the lack of spark between the passengers. Some mild attempts to stoke racial tensions aside, there’s an absence of animosity or drama between those on board the train and too many of the travellers feel like caricatures rather than fully-fleshed characters. Branagh in particular allows Poirot’s amusing peculiarities to overshadow his genius.
It’s disappointing because there’s an engaging movie hiding amid this tired mix of revelations, reveals and red-herrings – the desperately gripping denouement is masterfully executed as the facts of the case push Poirot’s morality to its limits. If only the audience’s attention spans hadn’t disembarked long before the train lurched into its powerfully moving destination.
Runtime: 114 mins (approx.)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Michael Green
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp