By: Matt Brunson
Although Peter Ustinov and David Suchet would repeatedly portray Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on screens both big and small, it was Albert Finney who headlined one of the most popular and enduring of all filmic properties based on an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Released in 1974, Murder on the Orient Express proved to be a potent box-office property, thanks in no small part to an all-star cast that numbered Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and Anthony Perkins among its ranks. As for Finney, his chameleonic ability to immerse himself in the role of the fastidious detective earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Similar raves and riches will likely be withheld from the new version of Murder on the Orient Express (** out of four). Certainly, Kenneth Branagh deserves credit for bringing this venerable novel to the modern screen, if for no other reason than to provide a viewing option for audiences not interested in Marvel or Madea (as someone quipped at my screening, this might qualify as Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the senior set). Ever the classicist, Branagh lets others waste their time trying to adapt video games — he prefers to deal with Shakespeare, Shelley and Cinderella (even his one stab at a superhero saga, 2011’s Thor, made sense due to the deep mythology behind the character). Branagh’s interpretation of Murder on the Orient Express, unfortunately, registers as a disappointment, with the director-star, aided by scripter Michael Green, puncturing the source material as often as someone ends up stabbing Edward Ratchett.
Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is one of the travelers aboard the Orient Express, and he seeks to hire fellow passenger Poirot (Branagh) to be his bodyguard lest someone try to murder him. Realizing that Ratchett is a thoroughly detestable gangster, Poirot refuses, only to awaken the next morning and find Ratchett slain in his own bed. Thus, the “world’s greatest detective” finds himself with his hands full interrogating the other passengers — the suspects include Ratchett’s secretary (Josh Gad), a meek missionary (Penelope Cruz in a variation of the role that won Bergman an Oscar for the ’74 take), an outspoken governess (Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Daisy Ridley), a helpful doctor (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton’s Aaron Burr), a persnickety princess (Judi Dench), and a chatty widow (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The changes that Branagh and Green make to the novel and the remarkably faithful 1974 version are baffling, leading to a film that feels as if it’s just skimming the surface of a compelling murder-mystery. With so much emphasis on Poirot (it’s clear the director loves his star), expository scenes that should establish the other characters prove to be choppy and unsatisfying — thus, when the case starts to clear up in the final stretch, many of the assembled players come across as little more than extras trying to crowd into the shot. The backstory to the whole mystery — the Daisy Armstrong affair (Christie’s nod to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping) — also appears in truncated form, thereby reducing its impact on the final revelations.
As director, Branagh makes some lamentable decisions, trying to frame a couple of moments as action set-pieces and elsewhere adopting strange camera angles that call awkward attention upon themselves. This is especially true of the murder sequence, which Branagh grotesquely stages as if he were auditioning to direct a remake of Carnival of Souls.
If nothing else, the production values in Murder on the Orient Express look smashing, and while no single performer stands out, all tackle their roles with aplomb. For the most part, though, Branagh has taken a beloved tale and committed (to borrow the title of another Christie adaptation) murder most foul.