You’ll forgive Sir Kenneth Branagh for being a bit self-indulgent. The Irish thespian has made marks on the stage and on the screen, both in front of an audience and behind the camera. Whether it’s been in front or behind the camera, he’s touched on Dr. Frankenstein, King Henry V, Hamlet, Macbeth and even Thor. Sir Kenneth has practically cornered the market on adapting classical fantastic literary works, so his turn at an Agatha Christie novel seems a bit overdue. And that’s even before he made himself the hyper-intelligent but eternally-charming hero of the story.
Murder on the Orient Express is the second film adaptation of Ms. Christie’s 1934 whodunit (Sidney Lumet took the first crack in 1974) with Sir Kenneth taking the role of Belgian super sleuth Hercule Poirot. The detective is called home to London after cracking a case in Jerusalem, so he must board the Orient Express to get home post haste. He meets a cavalcade of characters on board: a missionary (Penelope Cruz), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a professor (Willem Dafoe), a princess (Judi Dench) and her assistant (Olivia Colman), a party girl (Michelle Pfeiffer), a businessman (Josh Gad), a butler (Derek Jacobi) and a governess (Daisy Ridley). Another peculiar person is an American salesman (Johnny Depp), who asks Poirot to protect him from some mobsters looking to kill him. After Poirot turns him down, a passenger winds up stabbed to death in the middle of the night. Poirot springs into action and tries to sniff out who amongst the passengers is a killer.
In terms of his directing, Murder on the Orient Express is actually the most minimal movie of Kenneth Branagh’s career. Aside from the early scenes with sweeping CG shots of Jerusalem and Istanbul and one brief chase scene outside the stranded locomotive, the movie is entirely confined inside the immaculate train, which actually helps the movie’s drama in the long run. It narrows the mystery and makes the audience fully invested in the characters and events on the train. Branagh uses each train compartment as its own setting to match the characters, individual pieces of canvas he wants the audience to color in for themselves. The first hour-and-a-half of this nearly two-hour mystery is well played-out, focusing on the little details of each character interrogation and not doling out anything major or obvious. Branagh respects the mystery and how the characters inform it. And while some of them start off as stereotypes (the missionary’s always got God on her tongue, the German professor looking to redeem his country post-war, the princess with her prissy dogs), the script by Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) fills in the blanks by having them shocked yet shifty about the murder and how much of their personalities will put them in the black.
But then the movie’s third act rolls around and Branagh starts to wrap everything up rather abruptly. He ramps up the action and crucial plot details flood the screen. It might be a bit too much to take in at first, causing the audience to scratch their heads while trying to keep up with the movie’s climax. Even after replaying the ending and solution to the mystery in my head, I found myself struggling to believe the circumstances the movie sets up for its big reveal. It’s fine to have a bit of suspension of disbelief, but it deflated the movie’s suspense when it needed to satisfyingly pop. And when Branagh strolls through the snow with his peacoat blowing in the breeze like Superman’s cape while he prepares his dramatic closing monologue, it’s hard to ignore this as him brazenly pronouncing the entire movie as HIS circus and you will applaud HIM as THE ringmaster of it all. It’s like he’s expecting the audience to give a standing ovation to him ten minutes before the credits roll because they MUST APPLAUD THE EXTRAORDINARY EXQUISITENESS OF IT ALL! BRAVO SIR, ALL HAIL THEE WORDSMITH OF CULTURE!
Branagh himself starts his portrayal of Poirot as goofy as his moustache, but he reins it in once the mystery gets started. From there, he’s a stern but emotionally-aware detective as the moral center of the story. Both as a director and actor, he leaves plenty of room for his talented cast to stretch. Like most ensemble movies, the cast works in service of each other and what they do individually will be hit or miss. Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Judi Dench are all given prominent development time because they’re integral to the plot, whereas Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Coleman and Derek Jacobi fall by the wayside. Without spoiling anything, don’t be too mad when you come to this just for Johnny Depp (which might be understandable considering Depp is prominently featured in all the movie’s ads) and seeing his lack of screen presence. Even when the solo spots of the cast don’t leave much of an impression, they’re strong as a whole.
While it practically flips off the tracks before reaching its destination, Murder on the Orient Express knows that its focus is a good mystery. It’s not flashy and is only stylish in that its faithful to the time of the 1930s. Sir Kenneth trusts his audience enough to be invested in the mystery and puts most of the effort into building it. While it’s no standing achievement, it’s a solid parlour game that entertaining if not entirely satisfying. Even if Sir Kenneth only trusts his mastery to handle classic literature in modern cinema, at least he’s competent enough to back most of his ego up.