Few have managed to usurp David Suchet from his crowning place atop the pinnacle of Agatha Christie fame as Hercule Poirot. The latest contender to adorn the moustache is none other than Sir Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express, a whodunit mystery which he also directs. What the posters promise to be a sinister interpretation, seeing the sleuth thrown into a murderous pressure-cooker, turns out to be a perfectly passable adaptation, but lacks the edge to cut through the modern saturation of detective stories.
In its trailers, the screaming of the Express’ wheels against the blizzarded tracks hint at the darker elements of Branagh’s latest film, but the audience is put under no such illusion once they’ve taken their taken their seats. We open at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where the adaptation does a reasonable job of introducing unfamiliar viewers to the quirky detective, self-referentially having him solve a case in front of a huge crowd. In a clumsy but adequate characterisation, we see Poirot demand his morning eggs to be of exactly equal height, and deliberately tread in a cowpat with his other foot to ensure balance. He sees the world as it should be, he explains, so that when something is wrong, it stands out. A useful asset in the detection of crime, but not so helpful when it comes to social situations, where he might painedly remind someone to straighten their tie. All Poirot wants now is a “little ‘oliday” but his plans are thwarted when a violent murder takes place aboard the Orient Express, which he just so happens to be riding as he returns to Calais. Reluctantly he takes up the case and is tormented by the impossible twists of the crime. But the film is not the chilling detective drama it may have hoped to be.
Murder on the Orient Express falls victim to its own ambition as it tries desperately to stand out from the crowd, but underdelivers in conception, plainly reflected in Branagh’s performance. Sir Kenneth is a fine actor, but plays Poirot as a cartoon, sticking his cane into the Wailing Wall to proleptically stop a suspect from fleeing the scene, and waking in the night while wearing an elaborate moustache cover. He has obviously had fun with Christie’s creation, and does indeed use it to great comic effect, at one point forgetting the English word for ‘chocolate’ in an animated frenzy as he angrily confronts a suspect. And this would of course command enormous merit were it not for the notable setback that Branagh also wishes to tease out the sleuth’s inner turmoil and moral steadfastness to less avail.
Uncharacteristically too, in faster-paced moments, Hercule is portrayed as some kind of nimble stuntman come superhero. The result is a messy Poirot. One-part caricature. One-part action hero. One-part Belgian Javert. Just as it takes more than simply wearing a deer-stalker to animate Sherlock Holmes, so too does Christie’s famous detective demand a step beyond gluing a grand silver moustache to your upper lip and effecting a plausible accent. It is therefore rather disappointing that 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express goes no further than designing the flattest of story-arcs for Branagh to play with, with the inevitable outcome that Poirot comes across as nothing more than a fun sketch for the duration. And by the time the plot comes around the asking more of him, any attempt to give the detective a grittier spin falls undignifiedly flat.
Further, the sloppiness of this portrayal is symptomatic of the wider failings of the film. A stellar cast (which includes Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Defoe, Josh Gad and, for some reason, Olivia Coleman) is completely under-deployed. The solid performances simply serve to undercut each other, rendering one of the main draws of the film uninspiring, whilst many of the script’s horrendously clunky lines are delivered with soap-opera-level melodrama not worthy of such a talented ensemble. Perhaps the production team would have been better advised to save some of its budget, evidently spent on the big names, to improve the unapologetically CG landscapes the film insists on employing in an artificial quest for blockbuster scale.
Indeed, similar to Branagh’s mishmashed-Poroit, Murder on the Orient Express itself awkwardly stitches together two very jarring qualities – the claustrophobia of the cabin and the broader scope of the railway. Dexterous cinematography is used well when tracing the detective around the cramped inner quarters of the train’s sleeping cabins, though draining some scenes of suspense by deploying birds-eye shots. But the reach for ‘bigness’ is a lethargic one. Entire scenes inexplicably take place outside to inject the film with prefabricated tension, and it’s laughable. If Poirot’s not marching along the top of the snowy train roof, or interviewing a passenger across a coffee table in the freezing cold, he’s making his deductions as the suspects sit inside the tunnel at the front of the snowbound Express. There have been better BBC adaptations of Christie (And Then There Were None is an excellent recent example) which had less than half of this film’s budget, and yet are more than doubly thrilling by virtue of an impressive script. The conclusion can therefore only be that Murder on the Orient Express stumbles under the weight of its own self-aggrandisement. It puffs itself up, attempting all it can, with the result that it does almost everything half-heartedly. Had it lingered on the horror of the case itself, using more of its ingenious camerawork, it may have been genuinely tense. But the film is indecisive, and it pays a hefty price.
2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, though adequate as a light 12a mystery, comes nowhere close to fulfilling its potential. It delivers lazy type-characters from A-list actors, races through its explanations, and hubristically infuses scope into what should be a claustrophobic affair. It is an underwhelming piece that could have been so much more.