When a filmmaker directs himself in his own film, it is often viewed as a mark of conceit. In cases like Charlie Chaplin or Woody Allen, it’s clear the work would have suffered without the artist occupying both roles, but with a feature like Murder on the Orient Express, the essence of a greedy passion project is inescapable. Kenneth Branagh is no stranger to starring in his own films, but rarely has his indulgence been so uninhibited, nor has a project of his felt so unnecessary. With flamboyant direction and a hammy performance, Branagh’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic is half-baked.
First printed in 1934, the iconic murder mystery writer’s 16th novel portrayed her recurring Detective Hercule Poirot stumbling onto a case while traveling to London aboard the Orient Express. Despite an outlandish and improbable climax and solution, Christie’s skill captivating her readers has ensured the novel an enduring legacy. A 1934 review in The New York Times Book Review stated, “Although both the murder plot and the solution verge upon the impossible, Agatha Christie has contrived to make them appear quite convincing for the time being.”
Christie’s novel was first adapted to a film in 1974 by Sidney Lumet, which enjoys a glowing critical reputation to this day. The intricate whodunit featured a crowd of shady characters with a heightened sense of paranoia packed into a confined space, requiring no flashy visuals to offer a satisfying picture. The mystery was adapted again as a poorly received TV special for CBS in 2001, begging the question, why remake the film at all? Branagh seems to believe the answer lies with A-list actors and state-of-the-art special effects, but the result is evidence to the contrary.
The latest incarnation of Christie’s classic opens in Istanbul in 1934. In a heated confrontation at the Weeping Wall between police and some locals, renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) stuns observers with a brilliant resolution as to who stole a valuable artifact. The situation plays like a scene from a Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie, with the crack investigator outlining evidence in a theatrical revelation depicted by whipping cinematic flashbacks and visual exposition enough to make any viewer dizzy. It’s a fitting introduction for what’s to follow.
Poirot is later summoned back to London for a case, and after a chance encounter with Bouc, an old friend (Tom Bateman), he is offered a seat aboard the Orient Express. Over dinner, he is approached by Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a suspicious art dealer with a job opportunity, to which Poirot refuses. That night, an avalanche derails the train, and leaves its passengers stranded. The next morning, Ratchett is found dead, stabbed several times in the chest. Poirot reluctantly begins to investigate, and it soon becomes clear that nearly everyone on board is a likely suspect.
The setting and scenario of Murder on the Orient Express offers the perfect framework for claustrophobic tension, but Branagh does the opposite and opts for the full-scale blockbuster approach. Through sweeping visual shots and dramatic special effects, the train is pictured in transit, and the avalanche is portrayed with unrestrained spectacle. Inside the train, it’s even worse, as Branagh hammers the viewer with all sorts of poorly conceived cinematography. His fascination with windows are an especial nuisance, serving as constant on-screen obscurations.
The passengers aboard the Orient Express furnish one the film’s greatest selling points, that of a prolific all-star cast, but the mystery’s lengthy inventory of suspects gives little material for the many talents to shine. Just a few of the dubious travelers include Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz and Josh Gad. Unfortunately, despite an enviable roster, Branagh’s favorite actor is himself. All players are secondary to the director’s vain, middling take on a shifty eccentric forever mumbling under his mustache.
As mentioned above, Christie’s solution to the mystery is deeply implausible, and Branagh’s film does little to soften the landing. The author redeemed this drawback with magnetic prose, but the latest adaptation lacks the finesse to adequately convince. A critical misstep is the inability to sympathize the killer’s motive in the crime, and the film culminates in a finish that fails to move its audience. The ride has its occasional delights, but with bombastic choices in direction and an underuse of a wide cast of veterans, Branagh manages to derail Murder on the Orient Express.