Review: Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express remake pulls out of the station in fine style, only to get stuck in a blustery snow drift of Kenneth Branagh closeups and an avalanche of wasted A-list talent
Murder on the Orient Express
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Willem Defoe, Leslie Odom Jr.
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Running time: 1hr 55 mins
By Katherine Monk
He’s easy to spot. Blue eyes twinkling straight into the camera. At every opportunity, Kenneth Branagh announces his awesomeness. Because he’s playing Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s pastry-loving Belgian detective with the oversized ego, he can be forgiven for being a swine of the limelight.
As director and star of this big-budget movie marketed as a smart-person’s A-lister extravaganza, Branagh seems to bank more on himself than the rest of his marquee cast — and that’s just sad when you consider he’s got Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz riding in the carriage.
More disturbing still, even Agatha Christie didn’t much like Poirot. She called him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep.” Yet, we like the anal-retentive eccentric. He can outwit criminals, so we admire him no matter what the peccadillos or who plays him.
Branagh knows he’s got us in his back pocket. As a result, the director-star is in practically every frame of this gorgeous period piece, surrounded by splendour delivered with professional perfection.
From the cast, to the 1930s production design that invokes the most romantic notions of train travel, Branagh delivers the desired mood for the grand seduction. Even derailing in the middle of a mountain pass takes on a certain charm when you’re huddled amongst the privileged and the haunted.
The deep wood grain, the Lalique-inspired sconces, the polished deco doorknobs. Luxury is reassuring: It assumes civility — and there’s nothing more pleasurable in a murder mystery than an elegant dissection of the facts dressed in a smoking jacket.
Poirot is the embodiment of bourgeois justice. He patrols the rolling estates of entitlement, prompting a self-imposed exile. Behind his handlebar moustache, he stands alone, awash in a mixture of fame-induced irritability compounded by Belgian pride. He’s a complex and compelling character, but Branagh pushes him a tad too far, and turns Hercule into a campy, close-up loving caricature.
This re-ignition of the Orient Express boilers leaves the station with its tongue in cheek, throwing caution to the wind with an Imam, Rabbi and Priest joke. It’s designed for the 21st century viewer, because the whole film leverages a certain amount of nostalgia. Just about everyone has had an encounter with Poirot through one medium or another. He’s been played by the likes of Tony Randall, Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov. Christie’s creation is strong enough to withstand even Branagh’s self-aware — and equally obnoxious — incarnation.
What’s missing is the dynamic interaction with other players. The whole point of Poirot’s probing queries is to unveil character truth for the audience. Using his “little grey cells,” Poirot must show us the nature of his fellow men and women.
Christie may not have been a social critic, per se, but she loved to explore the dimensions of guilt. And she adored the English country house mystery — with its changing 20th century facades and personnel. Poirot was the outsider who never landed in the English parlour, only the first class cabins paid for by his employers. He was forever travelling, holding the establishment to account.
Christie used Poirot as a weight to trigger the trap door in each character’s soul. The fun part for the viewer, and the reader, was to piece the mystery together alongside the great detective.
Of course, we can never fully divine the finale. There was always a surprise and an elaborate explanation, but it was always within reach of the audience.
This Murder on the Orient Express wants to outwit us instead of include us in the denouement, which is where the ultimate betrayal certainly lies — and where Branagh’s culpability begins.
Certainly, this stellar cast has no guilt. Michelle Pfeiffer moves like a chess piece queen across the board, finding her power in subtle shifts of social mobility. Judi Dench holds down the castle in the corner as a steely threat, and Daisy Ridley bounds about the frame on a steed of noble thought — shining brightly in red lipstick. Even Johnny Depp finds his stride as an unseemly outsider, the man substituting cash for class.
All the pieces are there in this rather faithful re-telling of Christie’s novel. Yet, the game becomes dull to watch when we can’t fully integrate ourselves into the game. It violates the first law of Golden Age detective stories, which is to involve your audience and deliver on the democratic promise of engagement. It’s why the genre is so timeless and so popular: it’s a way for us to hold the privileged accountable, and reaffirm our own intelligence.
Branagh wastes the riches that surround him on every score and turns the performances of his cast mates into something of a museum tour — cursory glances at masterpieces hung beautifully in isolation. It’s all pretty to look at and has a lot to say, but Branagh’s blabby tour guide may be the only thing you remember.
THE EX-PRESS, November 10, 2017