Agatha Christie’s whodunnit classic is spiritedly brought back to the big screen by Kenneth Branagh in this stylish remake, but it lacks the bite you might expect from such a stellar ensemble cast.
Branagh himself is front and centre, playing the ‘greatest detective in the world’ Hercule Poirot, a character who is as attentive to the cooking of his breakfast as he is to the details of a murder case. He also has a ridiculously large moustache, and it’s no surprise the Movember charity are using him as a poster boy.
When one passenger aboard the long haul locomotive is killed in the night, it is down to Poirot and assistant Bouc (Tom Bateman) to find the culprit. This all takes place after the train derails amid an avalanche and is left stationary on a snowy viaduct. The BBC’s recent remakes of And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution have proved Agatha Christie is fashionable again — if indeed she ever wasn’t — and that’s what this film achieves most. It’s a lavish life of luxury; of fine-dining; of schmoozing; of slick suits and of stylish hairstyles, on board the Orient Express. If the passengers weren’t all murder suspects, you’d probably want to be there, in the warmly lit dining car, sharing a glass of red wine or two.
The camera work is just as polished, glinting and reflecting off the mirrored cabin glass and is abundant with lens flares. Kenneth Branagh and producer Ridley Scott do well to balance the close-quarters claustrophobia with snowy mountainous landscapes reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Branagh chooses to keep the story mostly unchanged, and indeed some lines from the original novel survive. Those that are added are mostly sharp: “you tell your lies and there are two people who will know: your God, and Hercule Poirot”, so proclaims our protagonist.
In Kenneth Branagh’s attempt to breathe new life into this cherished story he does more right than wrong.
His attempts (and failures) to master English slang during the film also provide some welcome humorous relief. Johnny Depp and his chiselled jaw makes a menacing Ratchett, while Daisy Ridley slips into the role of ‘The Governess’ with consummate ease. The rest of the cast is packed with well-known names and recognisable faces: Judi Dench stars as Princess Dragojmiroff with the accomplished Olivia Coleman as her assistant; Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer are among the other suspects. Finally, Leslie Odom Jr. is particularly intriguing as Dr. Arbuthnot, who, due to being black in this Prohibition era, is subject to racial prejudice from his fellow passengers.
Sadly, while they all look the part and suit their roles well, we rarely witness any of the actors with their wings fully spread. This is partly due to the convention of the genre, with its almost episodic view of each character’s alibi. But with so many stars vying for the limelight, we’re left with none of them shining quite like we know they can. That said, in Kenneth Branagh’s attempt to breathe new life into this cherished story he does more right than wrong.