It’s not that Murder on the Orient Express isn’t an ensemble piece that looks out for itself. And it’s not that director and star Kenneth Branagh isn’t frequently a capable, arresting Hercule Poirot. This great detective of the year 1934 solves the problem of a very bad man slain on the Paris-Istanbul train; the luxurious mustached Branagh is in fine thundering voice and gimlet eyes, examining nearly a dozen suspects. Branagh commands his scenes, either solving a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem before a crowd, or lining up the suspects to explain to them the twists and turns of the case. (No spoilers here: although the well-known business that Hercule’s evil twin brother Achille was the cause of it all will be fresh to the younger viewers.) It’s just that Michael Green’s script has wetted down Poirot so very much, making him a grieving lover, mooning over a cherished photo of a lost love—Kathrine, the lady in the photo, looks disturbingly like Emma Thompson. Modestly introducing himself as “perhaps the greatest detective in the world,” this detective has little Sherlock Holmes frost. Poirot is an essentially huggy person, so disarming that he apologizes for being Belgian. He oozes sympathy; twinkling even at the kid who brings him his perfectly boiled eggs.
Poirot is just trying to get some vacation time, when a remittance-man pal (Tom Bateman) connected to the train business encourages him to catch a ride on the crowded but luxurious transcontinental line. On board, the renowned detective is also offered a job: bodyguarding an “art dealer” (Johnny Depp) with a knife-scarred face. Poirot sensibly refuses, and that night the disagreeable American turns up dead, knocked out and then stabbed multiple times. (That’s the civilized side of author Agatha Christie: the deceased in the story was anesthetized and probably didn’t feel a thing.) An avalanche derails the train, just past a high trestle in the Yugoslavian mountains; the culprit has nowhere to hide aboard this snowbound train.
Which among the passengers was responsible: Judy Dench’s old dragon of a White-Russian aristocrat, dripping with opals? Daisy Ridley as a sunny governess? Michelle Pfeiffer as the kittenish divorcee stalking the train’s men? Willem Dafoe’s Nazi (or at least eugenicist) German, with round Himmler eyeglasses and a highly unpleasant Norfolk jacket? Perhaps the African-American physician played (and played badly) by Leslie Odom, Jr? Or Josh Gad, as the portly secretary to the deceased criminal?
The detective’s bafflement is helped when he discovers a connection to a fictionalized version of a famous tragedy of the Depression era. The crime is less remembered today, but you might well look up the story of the Lindbergh baby if you leave this film scratching your head.
Branagh tries to open up this piece, setting up one inquisition over coffee outside on a freezing day, just to get more mountainscape in. But the vistas are CG synthetic, and the luxury train about as authentic as the Polar Express. He stages relatively ambitious tracking shots and the suspects are spied through the beveled edges of the train’s glass dividers; their faces double through these prisms as they tell their lies to Poirot. Branagh crosscuts through the questioning of the more obvious red herring-passengers, in favor of emphasizing a good moment: Branagh and his mentor Derek Jacobi (in the butler role John Gielgud played in the 1974 film) talking about mortality. This is where the emo-izing of Poirot works the best; one watches and counts the decades Branagh and Jacobi have been acting together. The admirable lines (“The killer is mocking me. Good, his first mistake”) seem to eclipse the less admirable one (“To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.”)
Poirot here starts to talk of both God and himself as the witnesses of the truth. When the deception grows it becomes a kind of Gethsemane for the man. And it’s hard to bring the tone back from that display of emotional suffering, even with a fight scene and a shooting tailored for today’s taste for violence.
This new Orient Express is competing with an almost perfect version; while more than a few critics have cited TV’s David Suchet as the perfect Poirot; there’s less mention of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film version, with its urbane, crisp script by Paul Dehn, and a cast of most of the best living actors of the day. All were grilled to perfection by Albert Finney’s puttering eccentric detective, a remote yet somehow contented figure. He was humanized early on—as he goes for a stroll around Istanbul at sunrise, Poirot spies a weary café orchestra comprised of an accordionist and a banjo player doing the Shirley Temple hit “Good Ship Lollypop.” Thoroughly earwormed, Poirot keeps humming the candied song for the rest of the mystery. The part of Poirot is a present for any actor, and Branagh does the role well. But the conception of the detective as healer, exile and self-sacrificer inflates the material into Oscar season afflatus.