Murder on the Orient Express opens with Kenneth Branagh literally stepping in shit, a metaphor so apt for the 114 minutes that follows, it’s hard to believe the director/star isn’t straight-up trolling. Who else would so flagrantly tempt his critics? Perhaps the image is merely a challenge to himself, a visual wink that we’d have to resist citing, when faced with the brilliance of Sir Ken’s execution. Alas, it was not to be. His Murder is a slog, a museum piece full of pretty pictures and famous faces that never springs to life.
That’s a shame, because it’s a handsomely mounted production – the Express sparkles and shines, or at least its non-CGI version does – and a well-cast one too. Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Lucy Boynton, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Sergei Polunin all perform admirably, even when they’re given little to do (which is often). Michelle Pfeiffer vamps it up, entertainingly. Josh Gad is broken and understated, qualities we don’t usually think of in his work, and the contrast is surprisingly affecting. And it’s fun to watch Branagh and his frequent collaborator Derek Jacobi batting a scene around, like old bandmates practicing their riffs.
But directorially speaking, Branagh doesn’t seem to know what to do with this ensemble. Their introductions are alternately clumsy and overblown; particularly unfortunate is the showy big reveal, from behind, of Johnny Depp, as if anyone is still excited to see Johnny Depp in a movie. The staging and cutting is punchy, sometimes (it turns out) to hide the story’s culprit(s), sometimes for no reason at all. And – surprisingly, for a director who cut his teeth on stage – the big group scenes are particularly poorly blocked, most notably the big explanation at the end, which Branagh inexplicably stages with his entire cast lined up behind a table like they’re recreating da Vinci’s Last Supper or something.
However, Branagh’s always been a bit of a (likable) show-off with his camera, and a couple of his moves and compositions are real pips – particularly an early, extravagant tracking shot, alongside his Poirot as he boards the train and moves through it. He also indulges in a snazzy overhead hallway framing at a key moment – but keeps it going too long, and then trots it out again later (using it much more effectively the second time around).
His performance, as Agatha Christie’s genius detective Hercule Poirot, suffers from similar lack of moderation – and yet somehow still isn’t quite as commanding as you’d think. Part of the problem is his over-the-top accent, which sounds less like the Belgian detective and more like John Cleese’s “Taunting French Guard” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Can’t you tell by my outrageous accent?”). He does get the scattered laugh, via his Fieldsian asides (“If it were easy, I would not be famous. NEXT!”) and theatrical proclamations (“My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world!”).
The trouble is, this new Murder can’t decide if he’s a dazzling detective or (sigh) a complicated protagonist in the midst of a crisis of conscience. So he spends more than one scene gazing longingly at a photo of his dearly departed, as sad piano music plinks and he mutters “My Katherine… my beautiful…” Yet none of that squares with his portrayal of Poirot as a man who, as one unfortunate day player is forced to say out loud, can “see into their hearts and divine their true natures,” or who himself proclaims, “Crime answers to two masters: your God and Hercule Poirot!”
It’s not that I think he actually wants us to take that moment seriously – but by the picture’s conclusion, its mishmash of approaches is so shaky, it’s hard to be sure. There’s so much to like about the picture in theory: a sophisticated literary adaptation with a distinguished cast, geared toward grown-ups, only gently suggesting itself as a tentpole. But Branagh just can’t find a tone that works, veering unsteadily between high melodrama and unconvincing sincerity, a dual-track approach that derails by the time he arrives at his earnest final voice-over and speech. He ends up trying to make Murder on the Orient Express both more and less than it is. Just go rewatch the Lumet.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is out Friday.