In his version of Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh allows himself a part as big as his glorious mustache. The supporting players are often relegated to bits as small as the crumbs that might fall out of said mustache if his character didn’t maintain it so fastidiously.
That character is famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Don’t pronounce it Hercules or he will correct you in the exacting fashion he orders his eggs. That precision extends to his career. There’s right and wrong and nothing in between. Poirot’s worldview is challenged when he boards the Orient Express circa 1934, which happens to be the year Agatha Christie’s source material was penned.
Booking passage from stunning Istanbul to Paris, Poirot looks forward to a break from his work, but his powers of detection are utilized when a murder occurs. Nefarious character Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is stabbed multiple times during the night. Everyone onboard is a suspect and there’s about a dozen of them that Poirot must consider.
A lot of familiar faces are among the possibilities. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s flirty and dramatic Caroline. Daisy Ridley’s mysterious Mary and her connection with Leslie Odom Jr.’s Dr. Arbuthnot. Judi Dench’s domineering Princess Dragomiroff and her quiet assistant (Olivia Colman). Josh Gad is the victim’s right-hand man and Willem Dafoe is German professor Gerhard. Penelope Cruz is there as the faithful Pilar who hints at a more sinful past. And there’s more.
Yet even though Branagh has assembled a fine troupe of actors, this is the Poirot show. He dominates the running time with his outsized personality and facial hair. The character is introduced as a bit of a caricature but he becomes more sympathetic as the details of the murder and those who may have committed it are slowly revealed.
For those who’ve never read the book or seen any of the other filmed versions (the most notable being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation with Albert Finney as Poirot in a considerably smaller ‘stache), Murder might keep you guessing. A lot of other audience members, I suspect, already know the outcome.
Branagh brings a visual style here that is grand and sweeping. There’s some complicated and impressive tracking and overhead shots to behold. We also have the train careening through the wilderness and into tunnels that often look a bit too digitized for my taste.
Truth be told, this Murder doesn’t add much fresh to Christie’s story. Viewers who are fans of the 1974 pic might deem this unnecessary. It’s still an often fascinating whodunnit with a talented director, albeit one who hogs the spotlight a bit. Poirot may eventually change his views by the closing credits and it mirrors my reaction. It doesn’t get it totally right or totally wrong. There’s an in between.
**1/2 (out of four)