Was this journey really necessary? True, it’s been over forty years since the last time the Orient Express steamed majestically out of Istanbul (or Elstree, at any rate) on the big screen, accompanied by Richard Rodney Bennett’s waltz and an equally gorgeous array of movie stars. Director Kenneth Branagh has spoken about growing up in the 1970s and his relish for those film posters featuring a large glittering cast – often, in the case of disaster movies, there just to do a turn before being picked off by an earthquake, a burning skyscraper or a swarm of killer bees.
Here there is only one victim (unless you count the tragic Armstrong family of the original novel, whose circumstances Agatha Christie had based on the Charles Lindbergh kidnap story which had recently unfolded). It’s giving nothing away – if there’s still anybody around unaware of Hercule Poirot’s solution to ‘whodunnit’ – to reveal that it’s the sleazy antique dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Richard Widmark in the earlier Sidney Lumet version) who’s viciously murdered in his cabin in the middle of the night, just before the train is brought to a halt by an Alpine avalanche.
Ratchett has already made the schoolboy error of trying to enlist the services of Poirot, hiring him to confirm his correct suspicions that somebody is trying to kill him. His offer is curtly rejected by Poirot (‘I don’t like your face, Mr Ratchett’) who is supposedly on holiday and relaxing by reading Dickens. Among the murder suspects are a whole carriageful of well-heeled travellers, English (Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley), American (Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom Jr) and European or just plain exotic (Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz). Each is interviewed by Poirot, reluctantly drawn into the mystery, as the train steams and clanks and awaits rescue on a spectacular snow- (and CGI-) laden viaduct.
Even for admirers of Sidney Lumet’s film, with Albert Finney’s Belgian accent, as unlikely as his waxed moustache, reaching a crescendo as Poirot closes in on the guilty, there is much old-fashioned Sunday afternoon pleasure to be had in the new Branagh version, with the production design (Jim Clay) and photography (Haris Zambarloukos) as splendiferous as the cast. The train too – close-ups of pistons driving the plot along in time-honoured fashion – is fine, if a little short on carriages and standard-class passengers.
The main problem is with Branagh’s Hercule Poirot himself. The first scenes show him in Jerusalem, solving the mystery of a vanishing relic while hostile crowds mass around him. Is the culprit a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim? Poirot comes to his conclusion with typical dexterity, but the sequence has the air of a James Bond pre-credits extravaganza, and the final moments of the film anticipate DEATH ON THE NILE, his next case: ‘Poirot Will Return’ as it were, heralding a franchise.
Early scenes also show Poirot obsessing over his boiled eggs, rejecting them if they’re not exactly the same size and cooked for precisely four minutes. This is part of strenuous effort by the screenwriter Michael Green (credited recently on the remounted BLADE RUNNER 2049 and ALIEN: COVENANT) to give Poirot some depth with his pathological fear of ‘imbalance’ being confounded by unexpected events on the train – which add an unnecessary stabbing, a shooting and a fight on the edge of a precipice to the proceedings. Poirot is also given a ‘love of his life’, seen via a framed photograph and at which he stares mournfully before the photo is symbolically smashed.
All this back-story is at the expense of the other characters, who in consequence are given even less to do – Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz are particularly wasted – and the denouement of the mystery itself is given short shrift, ending in an unfortunately comic echo (for those who don’t know, look away now) of the ‘crowded cabin’ scene in the Marx Brothers’ MONKEY BUSINESS.
Despite the trappings then, this MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is finally a disappointment and much of it may be put down to the director doubling up as star: Kenneth Branagh dunnit, acting alone.