Hercule Poirot is an intriguing character. A control freak who is a brilliant detective with a Belgian accent and incredible moustache, Poirot was introduced by Agatha Christie in her 1920 novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles. He was popular enough to be featured in thirty-four of her books, the most famous being 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express. In 1974, Sydney Lumet adapted Orient Express into a well-regarded film starring Albert Finney, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar as Poirot. Also in the cast were such luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film) and Sean Connery, among others. Now, forty-three years later, Kenneth Branagh has made a new version with his own all-star cast.
It is 1934 and Poirot (Branagh) finds himself on the titular train as he heads from one case to the next. While he is onboard, there is a murder and his friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), who works on the train, asks him to solve it. The rest of the film is Poirot interrogating suspects until he discovers the truth.
There is no shortage of interesting characters on the train. There is Daisy Ridley as the mysterious Miss Debenham, Leslie Odom Jr. as a respectable doctor, Penelope Cruz as a woman of God, Johnny Depp as a crooked art dealer, Josh Gad (a Jewish actor who recently co-starred in the biopic Thurgood) as his assistant, Derek Jacobi as his servant, Michelle Pfeiffer as the husband-seeking Caroline Hubbard, Judi Dench as the Princess Dragomiroff, Olivia Colman as her assistant and Willem Dafoe as a professor.
It’s a very impressive cast. Unfortunately, everyone besides Poirot is a plot device. I could not tell you a single thing about them besides what is pertinent to Poirot’s case. They are there for their presence, not their performances. They are introduced, get their scene or two, then move off-screen in favor of the next character.
The only performance that does stand out is director/producer/star Branagh’s as Poirot. He is a showy character and Branagh has fun with him. He makes Poirot likeable despite his arrogance. It is an enjoyable performance, not as good as Finney’s, but still good. Branagh’s performance is also the aspect of the film that fares best when compared to the 1974 version. This is because his direction leaves a lot to be desired.
His pacing is clunky which means the film never develops a flow. The film’s opening sequence, showing Poirot solving a case in Jerusalem, is amusing and seems to be setting up a fun adventure. But once the train leaves the station, Murder on the Orient Express slows down. The screenplay, by Jewish writer Michael Green (who also co-wrote last month’s Blade Runner 2049), is surface with little depth. It is just setup after setup. Poirot is brilliant, but his sleuthing is not as exciting as it should be. Branagh never effectively builds suspense for this story.
After a while, it became a study in odd behavior instead of a compelling mystery. That being said, the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express does feature some entertaining behavior. The setup is okay, if a little slow, and Branagh makes for a pretty good Poirot. The production design is solid and the cast is tremendous. Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is far from bad. But it is disappointingly slight and forgettable. If you have a yearning to see this story onscreen, I would stick with the 1974 version.
3 out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews