They don’t make ’em like Murder on the Orient Express any more, but when they do, by chance, make ’em, they should cut ’em into tiny pieces, place ’em in a hole, and set ’em on fire, possibly with a sign warning everyone not to sift through the ashes.
Yet sifting through the ashes of a dead genre is what Kenneth Branagh is doing in directing this (sort of) all-star mystery, which was already a bit creaky and wheezy when it was directed for the big screen by Sidney Lumet in 1974, in a production that won Ingrid Bergman her third Oscar. For moviegoers born in the 1920s and 1930s, that movie may have been an amusing throwback, but now the source material — Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel — is a relic of an ancient era in entertainment. Instead of trying to freshen up the story, Branagh revels in the fustiness, like a weird kid rummaging through the trunks in a dusty attic.
Christie’s all-knowing Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot is a ludicrous figure, and I’m not talking merely about what appear to be two cat tails stapled to either cheek of Branagh, who cast himself as the man behind the visible-from-space mustache. Poirot doesn’t synthesize clues more wisely than the audience; he simply has lots of information denied to us, and so his great revelations, the scenes that are meant to showcase his genius, tend to be duds. Audiences today are much more sophisticated than they were in 1974, much less 1934, and we know when we’re being cheated. Christie cheats on nearly every page, which is why her hokey, contrived, far-fetched detective stories — at one time as commonly adapted to the screen as Marvel Comics characters are today — are fading out of popular culture.
Poirot, who in a prologue set at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem solves a crime via outlandish leaps of reasoning and dodgy assumptions, meets a variety of shady characters as he boards a train heading west from Istanbul in the early 1930s. There is an American businessman (Johnny Depp) who talks like Edward G. Robinson and has so many scars on his face he looks as if he shaved with a lawnmower. There are his lackeys (Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi). There is an Austrian white supremacist (Willem Dafoe), a pious, gloomy woman (Penelope Cruz), a Russian princess (Judi Dench), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), his secret lover the governess (Daisy Ridley), and a vamp (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Branagh seems to have ordered everyone present to try to make a bigger splash than Poirot’s mustache, but the effort reflects badly on everyone. It’s hard to say which of these actors turns in the most excruciating performance, but my vote goes to the cringe-inducingly terrible Pfeiffer, with Depp not far behind.
As one of these folks gets murdered and we wait for a final-act twist that’s so well known it’s a cliché — really, why make a movie that depends on a surprise that isn’t surprising? — Branagh, aware that he is essentially filming a play, goes to absurd lengths to try to liven things up visually. There’s a scene set in snowbound mountains in which the train derails, but the CGI is so sketchy we might as well be looking at one of those Coors Light “Love Train” commercials blown up to movie-theater size. On not one but two occasions, Branagh orders actors (including himself) to take inexplicable walks on the roof of the train. Sometimes he parks his camera high above the actors so we are treated only to the tops of their heads as they make key discoveries. It’s as if Branagh doesn’t think the story is interesting or plausible enough to hold our attention, and he’s right.
It’s as if Branagh doesn’t think the story is interesting or plausible enough to hold our attention, and he’s right.
Branagh seems to think the comfort-food aspect of the material is enough to attract an audience, but both the costumes and the sets carry a distinctly second-rate air, probably because the top talents in those fields are busy working in other, more contemporary genres. The movie’s main selling point, its supposed “all-star cast,” isn’t really effective either. Where is the glamour here? Cruz, frumpy and frowning, is utterly charmless. Depp has lost the rakish glint in his eye. Ridley may have been excellent as the young Jedi in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but she barely registers here. Odom, who made a splash in Broadway’s Hamilton, has even less to contribute. Gad, still best known as the voice of the snowman in Frozen, is strictly a broad comic and fails to bring any shadiness to his deceitful character. And Dench is simply bored. The feeling is contagious: I couldn’t wait to get off this cramped, stuffy, airless ride.