A movie about how much of a royal pain in the ass it was to kill someone before civilians had easy access to AR-15s, Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is an undercooked Christmas ham of a movie, the kind of flamboyant holiday feast that Hollywood doesn’t really serve anymore. Arrestingly sumptuous from the very first shot (and filmed in glorious 65mm), this cozy new riff on Agatha Christie’s classic mystery is such an old-fashioned yarn that it could have been made back in 1934 if not for all the terrible CGI snow and a late-career, post-disgrace Johnny Depp performance that reeks of 21st century fatigue. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate just how refreshing it feels to see a snug, gilded piece of studio entertainment that doesn’t involve any spandex. Or, more accurately, how refreshing it would have felt had Branagh understood why Christie’s story has stood the test of time.
You know the plot, even if you’ve forgotten the twist. The world is between wars, winter is settling in, and famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is being summoned back to Britain for his next case. The fastest way there: The Orient Express, one of those first class sleeper that America dumped in favor of Amtrak. A gilded mahogany serpent so refined that passengers are inspired to wear tuxedos to the dining car (and directors are inspired to weave through the cabins in elegant tracking shots that bring us right on board), the Orient Express is an exclusive experience for a certain class of people.
The paying customers on this particular trip naturally resemble a game of “Clue.” There’s a thirsty heiress (Michelle Pfeiffer), a missionary (Penélope Cruz), a plainclothes Nazi (Willem Dafoe), a smattering of royalty that ranges in age from Judi Dench to “Sing Street” breakout Lucy Boynton, a governess (Daisy Ridley, holding her own without a lightsaber in her hands), and the man she loves in secret (“Hamilton” MVP Leslie Odom Jr., a movie star in the making). There’s also Depp’s crooked art dealer — the eventual corpse — and Josh Gad as his right-hand man; the cast is so deep that Derek Jacobi barely rates a mention.
But one star forces the others into his orbit, and that is Branagh himself. Poirot has always been the engine for Christie’s mysteries, and not their fuel, but Branagh’s version doesn’t see things that way. In this script, penned by “Blade Runner 2049” screenwriter Michael Green, Poirot is always the top priority. From the stilted prologue (in which the great detective is introduced with an undue degree of suspense), to the nauseating farewell that inevitably teases a Hercule Poirot Cinematic Universe, Branagh’s take on the character is lodged somewhere between a Shakespearian fool and a superhero.
Filtered through a Pepé Le Pew accent that stinks from start to finish, he’s a walking spotlight in a film that feels like a Broadway revival, a live-action cartoon who’s more mustache than man. Branagh chews a dangerous amount of scenery for such a confined set, but the real problem is what the film has to do in order to justify his exaggerated presence: It has to give Poirot an arc.
Once the train derails on a rickety wooden bridge and Depp winds up dead in his cabin, the story should shift into mystery mode, with Poirot instigating our own imaginations. Here, however, Branagh blocks us out. What Christie learned from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle is that geniuses are only believable if they’re actually geniuses — detective stories don’t work if they hinge on their protagonists sleuthing out something that a child could see for themselves. That’s true of the mysteries, and it’s true of their solutions. Poirot is supposed to be a genius, but here he’s an idiot savant. “There is right and there is wrong,” he declares early on, “and there is nothing in between.”
You’d think, after solving however many cases, that he might have figured that out by now. But no, Poirot is obsessed with balance and restoring order to the world. The eggs he eats for breakfast have to be the same size. After accidentally stepping in horse poop with one shoe, he deliberately steps into it with the other. In a movie shot from so many dutch angles that the screen starts to seem tilted, Poirot is the only person who doesn’t recognize that the world isn’t flat, and that morality can never be perfectly measured. It’s agonizing to watch the brilliant detective work out such a simple concept, Branagh’s film growing long in the tooth even though it’s selling itself short.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is a creaky whodunnit in this day and age, and there’s not much that Branagh can (or chooses) to do about that without disrespecting the source material. His well-meaning but half-assed reach for relevance involves a certain degree of wokeness, this version highlighting the pluralism of Christie’s original in its backhanded celebration of American diversity, its conclusion that any true melting pot is sustained by fostering a mutual desire for justice. Race comes to the fore, with Odom inhabiting a role that was once played by Sean Connery. Interesting things percolate under the surface, as all of the passengers are traveling with a lot of baggage. But the movie only cares about the suspects for as long as they’re sharing the screen with Poirot.
Even Pfeiffer’s big moment is relegated to the end credits, where she can be heard singing a love ballad called “Never Forget.” Like everything else here, it’s hard to remember. A handsomely furnished holiday movie that should have devoted more attention to its many ornaments and less to the tinsel at the top, this “Murder on the Orient Express” loses steam as soon as it leaves the station.
“Murder on the Orient Express” opens in theaters on Friday, November 10.