How can a film with a derailed train, an avalanche, a mysterious murder, a stellar cast of characters, and a quirky detective be so dull? While Kenneth Branagh has taken the revered Agatha Christie novel and given it a beautiful theatrical glaze, Murder on the Orient Express misses the mark greatly. Branagh seems to be under the impression that the mystery adventures of Hercule Poirot are so perfectly written that subtle and understated performances will carry the film and do right by the material. But this isn’t Shakespeare, no matter how much the refined Branagh tries to contort Christie’s writings into the stiffest of dramas.
We meet Poirot (Branagh) by way of an introductory mystery, solved with ease. We see his precise nature with respect to evenness in his breakfast, his calculative means of cracking a case, and his foresight on how to stop the culprit. He’s a little mean and a little obsessive and has a hint of humor in his ambling around Europe. Or at least he should. Branagh’s portrayal finds Poirot as an older, quieter man for whom any attempt at being either stern or silly comes off awkward. This famous character from Christie’s works feels as though he should have more fire in his belly when he uncovers a murderer or more fragility when trying to handle an imperfect world. One of the few times Branagh seems to awaken the character from his coma is a heated exchange in which he fumbles the word “fudge.”
En route aboard the Orient Express, Poirot is approached by huckster Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who is fearing for his life. Ratchett wants to hire Poirot to protect him from some wicked men, but that’s not exactly the detective’s forte. And even if it were, he doesn’t deal with such questionable characters—at least not when they’re alive. But after an avalanche stops the train, the passengers discover Ratchett has been murdered in his cabin. Anybody onboard could be behind such a killing, especially since we don’t know a whole lot about most of these passengers past a silent shot of each of their faces when they first appear. It’s up to Poirot to solve the crime, even if he seems to consider himself off the clock and would rather indulge in Dickens.
There’s undoubtedly a strong cast assembled for these suspects, including a glowing Penélope Cruz, an uneasy Josh Gad, a snooty Judi Dench, and a deceptive Willem Dafoe. The problem is that we don’t get many scenes with them, and the few we do are entirely expositional and simply meant to drive the plot. We don’t get to learn anything about the characters until Poirot gets to them first. Heck, we know more about Poirot than we do anyone else on the train, including a pointless back story about a lost love. The result of the film strictly following the central detective and rarely anyone else is that’s hard to stay engaged, to the point that even the gorgeous cinematography can do little to sway the doldrums of Poirot’s tedious profiling.
A few shots stick out as being dazzling set pieces, even if the director holds on these scenes long past their cleverness. The discovery of Ratchett’s body is creatively showcased in an entirely overhead shot that’s unique at first but loses its luster after a few minutes when I’d like to be in the action rather than observing it from above. And while some of the vista shots are pleasant to the eye, they remove quite a bit of character from scenes in which you really should be seeing some passion and drive on Poirot’s face. How can I admire his keen observations in the Middle East when I have to watch his deductions from what looks like the nosebleed seats? That said, Poirot’s final questioning is well composed, seeing him placed in front of the train with the glowing lights behind him and standing before a Last Supper–style arrangement of the suspects. I admire how well Branagh can be photographed for a shot; his blue eyes can look eerie and terrifying in just the right light.
It’s impressive how Branagh reveals the mundanity of the mystery formula when it’s presented in a theatrical film. He misses chance after chance to add some character, atmosphere, and pep to a tale that should be driving and exciting. But his biggest sin lies in creating a boring presentation out of a decadent display. It’s a mystery so dry that it cracks and crumbles when inching towards the finish line, making its grand twist more of a shrug than an eye popper. Despite donning such a silly mustache, Kenneth Branagh is taking Poirot far too seriously, lulling the audience into a slumber that is broken briefly by a chase, a stabbing, and a gunshot. But if a mystery relies on these minor theatrics to prevent drowsiness, something foul is afoot.