“Murder on the Orient Express” suggests it’s possible that no director has ever loved his star more than Kenneth Branagh loves himself. Watching how lovingly Branagh dotes on every follicle of sculpted hair, every self-consciously idiosyncratic gesture of his own performance as Hercule Poirot, you’d think that the Oscar-nominated director was anointing an irresistible new ingénue to the pop culture firmament.
Unfortunately, Agatha Christie’s source material — famously adapted to the big screen in 1974, and again for television in 2001 — is an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle, which is perhaps why Branagh’s choices feel so misguided, reducing this murder mystery to a one-man show for the character whose journey is by far the least interesting.
Set in 1931, the film opens in Jerusalem, where Poirot is apparently keeping the entire city’s inhabitants waiting while he double-checks that his breakfast eggs are symmetrical. Handily solving a theft in which a rabbi, priest and imam are the chief suspects (don’t worry, he points out the comedic possibilities), Poirot is all set for a much-needed vacation when he receives a telegram about an outstanding case that requires his prompt return to London. The most expeditious route is via the Orient Express, for which his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, “Snatched”) serves as director, so Poirot soon finds himself rubbing elbows with a cross-section of international passengers from various walks of life.
His companions include governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), English physician Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), man-hungry widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), maid-turned-missionary Pilar (Penelope Cruz), German professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) and Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a brutish American who attempts to hire Poirot to protect him.
Poirot declines — “I do not like your face,” he tells him plainly — and the next morning, the detective awakens to learn that Ratchett has been murdered, even as the train gets stranded mid-journey by an avalanche. Bouc, desperate to protect the Express’ reputation, begs his friend to solve the case before local authorities can arrive, dig them out and turn the crime scene into an international scandal.
But when one of the clues points to a crime from years ago that Poirot was unable to help solve, the legendary detective is forced to rethink his concept of justice as he tries to make sense of a murder that every one of his fellow passengers could be guilty of committing.
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Branagh clearly relishes the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of what is quite frankly an incredible list of actors who have played the iconic Poirot: Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm and Orson Welles, to name but a few.
Further, he embraces the character’s anachronistic facial hair and Belgian accent with a self-congratulatory enthusiasm that suggests he wants you to appreciate the fact he’s taking this silliness seriously.
But this feels like one time when casting a younger actor in a role like this would have actually benefited the story, particularly since the script by Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”) wants Poirot to experience some sort of emotional journey, which Branagh’s seasoned, pompous certitude in the role undermines.
Behind the cameras, meanwhile, Branagh reserves the bulk of his creative energy for rich, detailed close-ups of himself and, when needed, gorgeous wide-angle shots of international locales, while routine montages of crisp linens and polished mahogany highlight the posh affluence of the Express.
His efforts to inject the film with a handful of action-oriented sequences feel appropriately half-hearted, underscoring his blind spot as a director, not to mention performer, of action (“Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” fans, don’t @ me), inadvertently emphasizing the smallness of a story he’s trying to make feel operatic.
But the biggest crime Branagh commits is wasting one of the most impressive ensemble casts in recent history, reducing Poirot’s 12 suspects to one-dimensional background characters. Ridley seems destined for massive stardom — she commands the screen every time her character, Mary, spars with Poirot — but she, like virtually everybody else, frequently seems in search of something to do while Branagh is monologuing. Judi Dench won an Academy Award for one scene in “Shakespeare in Love,” but she barely registers at all as a snooty princess; ditto Olivia Colman, far too talented to play a handmaiden whose link to the murder is established tenuously at best.
That a tintype photograph of Poirot’s lost love gets as much screen time (and emotional weight) as some of these characters feels questionable, but when they’re played by the likes of Cruz, Dafoe, Odom and Pfeiffer, there’s just no excuse for their contributions to be so anemic.
Ultimately, “Murder on the Orient Express” isn’t necessarily awful; it’s just inert, a prestige pic that’s too busy looking handsome and respectable to evoke any real intrigue or emotional involvement. Despite its shortcomings, it’s the kind of movie we need more of, where stars converge to play a juicy, small part in a bigger story, targeted at an audience as equipped to appreciate seasoned actors like Dench, Dafoe and Derek Jacobi as A-listers such as Depp and Daisy Ridley. Certainly in that regard, Branagh extends an impressive lineage of Agatha Christie adaptations populated by some of the best actors in the world.
But if the goal is to launch a franchise adapting the author’s iconic works for contemporary moviegoing audiences, it behooves Branagh going forward to remember there’s not much suspense in a whodunit if one person does so much that there’s nothing left for anybody else.