THE CHALLENGE FACING Kenneth Branagh in his stylish re-imagining of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was how to make a dated, preposterous story, engage an audience well accustomed to very high class murder mysteries on TV.
As a reminder of the story: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh), sporting (or I should say, fighting against) an absurd clownish mustache, finds himself on a train with an eclectic cast of characters, one of whom is brutally murdered. The train (said Orient Express chugging through snowfall from Istanbul to London) gets stranded by an avalanche and it behooves the world famous detective, armed only with his formidable intellect (and without even the aid of Google) to solve the mystery and reveal the murderer.
Branagh’s solution to his problem is to offer us a conjurer’s trick. He invites the audience to slip back into the effortless glamour of 40’s Hollywood, when everyone looked fabulous; when the clothes, like the complexions glowed with an otherworldly gossamer of elegance and sumptuous wealth. And not just the people: the scenery, the sets, the locations are all gloriously beautiful. There is one particular moment when the detective’s motor launch steams into the Bosporus that is picture postcard perfect.
And it’s while we’re engaged, preoccupied, by all this visual spectacle that he sneaks in a crudely cartoonish, tension-free version of Cluedo. Was it the butler with the hammer in the library or the count with the spanner in the bedroom?
The story presents us with a series of broadly drawn stock caricatures that this high quality ensemble of actors struggle to transcend. Judi Dench is the haughty Princess with her fussy dog, Daisy Ridley is the deceptively sweet governess, Johnny Depp (mercifully contained) is the brash gangster, Derek Jocobi is the snooty man-servant, Michelle Pfeiffer is the flirtatious American, Olivia Coleman is the dowdy German lady in waiting, Penélope Cruz is the distraught sinner etc. The twist of course is that below the caricature, there are real beating hearts, one of whom is a murderer. But caricature wins out over the beating hearts, whose stories never quite make it to the surface despite an endless yawn of interrogations.
Christie’s writing may have made this absurd assemblage easier to digest by colluding with her readers’ imaginations and escapist fantasies. But writ large on the big screen in a post “Gone Girl” world, these cartoonish characters all seem shop worn and passé.
In the end, the big, deliberately theatrical reveal, with a Poirot burdened with his choice between the law and Justice, seems all very anti-climatic.
That said, as a lover of great cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos of “Denial” and “Thor”), brilliant production design (Jim Clay of “Woman in Gold” and “Love Actually”) and inventive wardrobes (Alexandra Bayne of “Doctor Strange” and the “Avengers” franchise), it was a very watchable film. (Far more watchable, say, than the much-lauded faux jollyness of “Thor: Ragnarok” which, at best, was a great cure for insomnia)
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Dir: Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman. Writer: Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”), Composer: Patrick Doyle (“Thor: Ragnarok”)