Occasionally entertaining in a way that makes you think it stumbled its way into being entertaining, this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express is more often than not a Branagh starring vehicle that desperately needs to segue into a more complete ensemble effort or, at minimum, turn into a film that cares as much about its supporting characters as it does about Hercule Poirot's ridiculously overwrought mustache.
Yes, it's true. A mustache can be overwrought.
Most famously adapted for the screen in 1974, with Sidney Lumet directing and an equally awe-inspiring ensemble cast led by Albert Finney's Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express never quite gets on track here constantly feels like it's bringing forth ideas that looked good on paper but fall completely and utterly flat here with even the film's production design at times dancing more toward The Polar Express than Agatha Christie. Set in 1931, we're introduced to the rather peculiar Poirot, whose obsession with completely level breakfast eggs comes at the expense of an eagerly awaiting city of Jerusalem anxious to find out if Poirot has uncovered the mystery of a stolen religious relic.
Of course, we know the answer to this question. We're also not particularly surprised when the mystery involves a priest, a rabbi, and an Imam.
Because. Just because.
The rest of Murder on the Orient Express lurches forward in a similar tone, whisperingly spoken witticisms landing with a thud and Poirot's ever-expanding pecularities never feeling like more than intentionally manufactured cinematic set-ups rather than something authentically manifested out of his character or anything that furthers the story at all.
Once Poirot is finished in Jerusalem, a long needed vacation awaits but, of course, duty calls and he arranges with dear friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, Snatched) to acquire a cabin onboard the Orient Express alongside the likes of governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), an English physician named Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the man-hunting Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), German professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), a doomsday Christian missionary (Penelope Cruz), and Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a brutish businessman whose right-hand man (Josh Gad) seems to be the brains out of the not to be trusted outfit.
With some relatively minor twists, Murder on the Orient Express is surprisingly faithful to the 1974 production. While I shan't give away the storyline for those who've never read the Christie novel nor seen the Lumet production, or for that matter the 2001 television production, suffice it to say that a not so popular but key character winds up dead, the Polar Express, 'er Orient Express winds up derailed in a snow drift, and everyone is a suspect and everyone, it would seem, has a reason to be guilty.
Unfortunately, for a good part of Murder on the Orient Express, only Poirot really seems to matter. It's as if Branagh is stuck back in Cinderella, because he seems completely enamored of himself here from the beginning to the end of the film. Expanding upon Poirot's rather infamous facial hair, Branagh's facial here is practically another character. It's as if Branagh wants us to applaud the fact that he's taking this entire affair seriously by constantly reminding us how completely absurd it all is. Often, Branagh's performance feels like Steve Martin doing Clouseau on valium.
Working from a script by Michael Green, of Blade Runner 2049 fame, Branagh is obsessed with portraying himself here with the lens often focused upon his own actions or his own facial here no matter what's going on around him. It's been quite some time since such a talented ensemble cast has been so totally wasted with only Josh Gad really being given true moments to shine.
There's not a soul in this case who isn't capable of much greater work than what unfolds here, Daisy Ridley a remarkably promising young actress who also shines when she goes toe-to-toe with Poirot but she's given little else to do here. Judi Dench, an Oscar winner for literally one scene in Shakespeare in Love, is so completely under-developed that we could pull in Irene Ryan and she'd have just as much impact. The same is true for Penelope Cruz, quite literally the most bland and depressed Christian missionary since the last time a Jehovah's Witness knocked on my door, while one can't help but look at Johnny Depp and think "What went wrong, Johnny? You used to at least try." Leslie Odom, Jr. is fine but completely one note, Willem Dafoe is a caricature, and Michelle Pfeiffer will likely leave Bruno Mars wanting to squelch that whole white gold thing.
There are times that Murder on the Orient Express is at least beautiful to look at, though it's true that most of those times had me singing Christmas carols in the back of my mind. However, there are other times that the lensing is stunningly muddy and the atmosphere is devoid of any sort of tension or thrill that might actually aid the story.
Murder on the Orient Express isn't an awful film. In fact, it may be even worse. It's one of those films that feels completely and utterly unnecessary in the same vein as that godawful Vince Vaughn led Psycho misfire. Occasionally entertaining almost despite itself, Murder on the Orient Express is an average adaptation of a better than average, Oscar-winning classic. Save yourself some cash and check out the vastly superior original instead.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic