Murder on the Orient Express – movie review

by James Robins / 23 November, 2017

It’s elegant and star-studded, but this update on Agatha Christie’s rail tale lacks puff.

Big, lavish, ornate and chuffing along under heavy manpower, Murder on the Orient Express is much like its titular train, running on thoroughly regimented rails towards a familiar destination.

Kenneth Branagh directs this steaming behemoth, adapted from Agatha Christie’s famous 1934 mystery, and takes up the bewhiskered mantle of Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective, possessor of mankind’s most elaborate moustache and prizewinner for ridiculous Belgian accents.

Branagh plays him with more pep and sprightliness than Albert Finney’s 1974 version or David Suchet’s long-running TV turn, adding a dash of the quixotic and a hint of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In Poirot’s mind, there is right and wrong and nothing in between. Any deviation from this clean alignment unsettles him more than the uneven eggs he’s served for breakfast. (He deduces it’s the hen’s fault.)

After some introductory sleuthing and dubious CGI cityscapes of Jerusalem and Istanbul, we finally climb aboard the Express and meet the passengers, the camera tracking the length of the carriages in a single take, introducing a starry ensemble cast as if they were already in a police line-up: Judi Dench looking glamorously dangerous as a Russian princess, Daisy Ridley’s clipped and smiley governess, Johnny Depp’s slick art dealer quickly and thankfully despatched, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, an imperious Michelle Pfeiffer, and many more.

Once they’re bound for Paris, twin tragedies strike: an avalanche strands the train and there’s a bump in the night, the crime scene cleverly and teasingly shot from above as if this really was a game of Cluedo.

The thrill of Christie’s stories is not necessarily in discovering who the killer is, but how Poirot pins them down. He sets about detecting, and we settle in for some fine actorly flourishes. Only they never arrive. These interrogation scenes ought to be riven with doubt and misgiving – a combat between Poirot’s smarts and his prey’s slip-ups. But they pass without even a hint of intrigue. Branagh just wrinkles his moustache like a terrier and unleashes a ridiculous exclamation: “Ze killar iz mockeeing mee!” Or, “Forgeev me, I’m Bellzhin.”

And again, despite Poirot’s lectures on good and evil, and the final reveal arranged to look like a picnic version of the Last Supper, the traumatic origin of the crime and its dubious moral outcome never quite trouble us as perhaps they should.

Branagh’s attempt at a Christie is certainly handsome and not without a few sly grins, but there’s something frustratingly stuffy and pedestrian about it, as if he got caught up in eccentricities and period details and forgot that a mystery ought to be mysterious.

video by 20th Century Fox NZ

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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