Here’s the biggest mystery of director and star Kenneth Branagh’s opulent period mounting of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel: Why? Who was clamoring for yet another retelling of a story that has been told onscreen — both the big and small screens — several times already, and as recently as 2010 in the beloved television series starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot? Why bother to tell this story again at all unless there is something fresh to say with it, something that speaks to audiences today?
This ain’t Hamlet, an enduring consideration of humanity, as Branagh would well know: there’s nothing inherently timeless about Christie’s story. So here’s the biggest irony of Branagh’s film… indeed, an accidental irony in a film almost entirely lacking in humor, self-awareness, or subtext: it’s something of a mixed blessing that almost no attempt has been made to update the tale for modern sensibilities. Because there isn’t any obvious room for that. (A black actor, Leslie Odom Jr., has been cast in what would have originally been a role for a white man, and that’s great, but this doesn’t impact the story in the least.) And the less obvious route to take — such as, perhaps, a meta riff on the one aspect of this particular mystery that perhaps accounts for its fame — would result in a very different sort of movie than, clearly, Branagh (Cinderella, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) wanted to make.
But still: what we’ve ended up with here is a film that feels doubly dated. For one, it adheres far too slavishly to an almost century-old novel that was very much of its time. For another, it harkens back to an age of entertainment that is over. When director Sidney Lumet gave us his adaptation of Orient Express in 1974, the gathering of Hollywood luminaries that was his cast — including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Albert Finney, and other huge names of the day — would have felt like an event, something not to be missed. In our era of 24/7 on-demand movies and prestige television and endless hot- and cold-running celebrity news and gossip, it just feels like one more pile-on. Our problem today is too many famous faces in our faces all the time, not too few.
Christie’s fiction was never strong on character, and that is only amplified here: as the suspects (and one of them the victim) in a murder on the moving high-speed luxury train The Orient Express, en route from Istanbul to Calais, the impressive cast cannot help but be underutilized; they’re mostly just posing in their gorgeous 1930s costumes. And, to be fair, the likes of Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!, Dark Shadows), Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Willem Dafoe (The Great Wall, John Wick), Penelope Cruz (The Brothers Grimsby, Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), etc, do look amazing… but a Vanity Fair themed fashion shoot does not a satisfying movie make. The nature of the mystery itself demands that they be underwritten, that we don’t get to know them well; their secrets cannot be explored, at least not without some very clever writing that is able to balance the mystery of them while also fleshing them out. Unfortunately, screenwriter Michael Green has been making quite a name for himself playing in other writers’ sandboxes and bringing nothing of his own to the game: he’s been party to the disappointing retreads that are Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant (though he is also one of several credited screenwriters on the wonderful Logan). Branagh struggles to get past the ghost of David Suchet — a fabulous moustache isn’t enough — and he’s not helped by the script, either, which (among other problems with this character) gives the detective an outrageously dramatic moment at the end of the film that he doesn’t earn.
Without engaging characters — they all remain strangers to us — we’re left with Poirot’s puzzle-solving, which here leaps from clue to conclusion with nary any detectiving in between. As a procedural, which is all Orient Express has apart from its exercise in period production design, there’s little pleasure to be found in Poirot’s investigation because we cannot follow his train of thought (no pun intended). By the time it all comes gushing out in the “let me tell you why I’ve asked you all here” finale, the solution to the mystery swings wildly from feeling preposterous to feeling way too pat. And on top of all that lack of satisfaction, the central motivation for the murder — both in the novel and here — revolves around a fictionalized version of a real-life notorious incident of the early 1930s that would have been fresh to Christie’s readers and likely would have felt shocking and even deliciously exploitative. For us, even those who are aware of what is being referenced (which won’t be everyone), it does nothing of the sort. It has no power to move us.
In the end, then, this Murder on the Orient Express is nothing more than a pretty box of random trinkets, lovely to look at yet all but meaningless. It’s a sad cinematic derailment.