When I think of great British mystery writers, I think of Agatha Christie; when I think of great British actors, I think of Kenneth Branagh. So it’s too bad that a film pairing these two British “greats” isn’t more compelling.
Branagh takes the lead both in front of and behind the camera in this latest adaptation of Murder On the Orient Express, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous Hercule Poirot novels. While I haven’t seen any of the other film adaptations (including Sidney Lumet’s 1974 iteration), I have read a lot of Agatha Christie. Often referred to as “The Queen of Crime,” Christie is known for her ability to create elaborate plots populated by large casts of eccentric characters. I didn’t devour her novels growing up because they were realistic, but because they were so very British to me—tidy, polite, aristocratic, and matter-of-fact. Branagh has created an opulent, star-studded film, gorgeous to look at and updated with modern opinions about race and religion, and in doing so loses some of the essential “Britishness” necessary to keep Christie from feeling silly.
Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a fastidious, world famous Belgian detective with an equally famous mustache. “I can only see the world as it should be,” he says, which means he can immediately spot when something is amiss. When he gets the chance to spend three days aboard the luxury train the Orient Express, he takes it, eager for a break between cases. But almost immediately, he’s approached by Ratchett, a raspy-voiced gangster (Jonny Depp) who offers to pay him to watch his back. Poirot refuses, but is approached by a lot of other people along the way, mostly those who want to ooh and ah at the famous detective. There’s the flirtatious husband hunter Ms. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the imperious Russian princess (Judi Dench, doing Judi Dench), a spunky and coy governess with a secret of her own (Daisy Ridley, a bright spot), a racist Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe), and an idealistic young doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), to name a few.
When Depp, who seems to be a real asshole on and off the screen, gets himself stabbed in his compartment (to the disappointment of no one), Poirot surrenders his desire for peace and quiet and reluctantly reenters detective mode. While there’s no shortage of clues, there is a shortage of truth; no one’s story quite lines up and everyone has something to hide. As Poirot questions and re-questions everyone in the car, the film takes on a revolving door quality; characters flit on and off screen, a line here, an eccentricity there. We never get the chance to know any of these characters, which wouldn’t be such a problem except that it also means we never have the chance to care. In this case, the star power works against the film. It takes us out of the story and prevents the stakes from feeling high; I sort of felt like I was watching a seminar on acting, led by the British greats and eagerly attended by a few Americans. The cast never completely coheres, and as a result the scenes are disconnected from each other and the momentum lags. (Much like the train itself, which gets stuck in the snow twenty minutes in).
This isn’t to say that the acting isn’t wonderful, it is, particularly Branagh as Poirot. He captures Poirot’s humorous obsession with symmetry; he’s meticulous and particular, but not without heart. We get the sense that Poirot’s commitment to putting things right appeals not just to his idiosyncratic sense of order, but to his deeply held sense of morality. Branagh attempts to put this to the test with the film’s conclusion, but his decision to use voiceover cheapens Poirot’s ethical dilemma and renders his deliberation sentimental rather than existential. There are lines that give us whiffs up deeper themes— Poirot acknowledges “the poison of deep grief,” and notes that “it takes a fracture of the soul to kill another person.” But since the rest of the film feels mostly like a high-budget set piece, this last ditch effort to insert philosophical musings comes as a nuisance rather than a rewarding resolution.
“The human heart is perverse in its complexities,” notes Poirot, accurately. In that case, Murder on the Orient Express could’ve used a little more perversity.
6 out of 10 stars