Murder doesn’t get much cosier than a reboot of a classic Agatha Christie yarn but the new take on this fatal trip aboard one of the world’s most famous trains is the recasting of Hercule Poirot as a man of action as well as a great intellect. It’s rather like Guy Ritchie’s steampunk retro-fit of Sherlock Holmes, though it has to be said that Branagh’s Poirot doesn’t get to take his shirt off and indulge in a spot of bare-knuckle fighting like Robert Downey Junior did.
Nevertheless, this take on a very familiar tale starts off brightly in Jerusalem between the wars where we are introduced to Branagh’s extravagantly whiskered Poirot as he solves the case of a stolen holy relic while waiting for his boiled eggs for breakfast and reveals the culprit in front of a large audience by the Wailing Wall. It’s a fun, well orchestrated opening and a nice way of introducing this Poirot as a charismatic, world-weary but obsessive sleuth.
En route back to Europe on the Orient Express is where the meat of the action takes place, of course, as a rogue’s gallery of characters (a count and countess, a German engineer, a Russian princess and her maid, a doctor, an American socialite… you get the idea) share Poirot’s carriage as they speed through the wild terrain of Eastern Europe. It’s not too long before the murder occurs while the train is derailed by an avalanche and Poirot has a new case on his hands
Kenneth Branagh’s film is a curate’s egg. It is heaving with acting talent, it’s beautifully designed (the period detail really is exquisite) and with a script by Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) it’s got one of the hottest screenwriters in the business aboard for the ride. And yet after a strong start the film drifts; its middle passages are unfocused and by the end it’s less a case of whodunnit than do-we-care-whodunnut? Another issue, of course, is that this story has been around so long that we probably already know who did it.
I think the problem may be – and some may regard this as sacrilege – Agatha Christie’s flimsy story that stretches credibility to its limits and beyond. What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, though I seem to remember the 1974 film version being a lot more coherent. There are so many suspects here that the actors under Poirot’s scrutiny are afforded a series of cameos rather than a chance to play fully-realised characters which feels like a waste of the considerable talent on show.
Another problem is tone. We veer between whimsy and the serious business of murder rather uneasily. Humour can be a great source of relief when there’s serious business afoot. But when it’s not pitched just right, it can undermine it.
I’m not sure it would be a spoiler to give away who did it when the story was first published in 1931 but the narrative loses its way when the murder is committed. That avalanche doesn’t only derail the train, it derails the film. The victim, Johnny Depp’s Edward Ratchett, is clearly a nasty piece of work but he has a feral presence the film lacks after he’s dispatched. All the other characters seem rather anaemic by comparison.
Except, of course, Branagh’s Poirot. With a moustache of some note and a nose for sniffing out lies and deception, Branagh’s Poirot is a likeable, finicky creation who manages to combine authority and charm in equal impression. He makes quite an impression. It’s a shame no one else does.
Murder On The Express looks beautiful and is fun to an extent, but because it suffers from a familiar cinematic issue – namely, it consists of a beginning, muddle and an end – it ends up being an unsatisfying experience.