Dir.: Kenneth Branagh; Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Leslie Odem jr; Malta/USA 2017, 114’
Director, producer and star Kenneth Branagh has filmed Michael Green’s script of Agatha Christie’s 1930s murder mystery MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS with the tragic earnestness of a Dostoyevsky novel. He never allows himself any sort of playfulness or improvisation, and the veteran Hollywood cast fails to animate this re-make of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of the crime novel which is dead on arrival on the screen.
Even Lumet, a much more innovative director than Branagh, struggled with the transformation of the page to the screen: after all, we have 12 suspects and just one setting – even though Branagh manages to let the cast out into the snow for a few minutes, after the train derails during a storm: he even manages to botch that outing, but more of that later. Branagh’s collaborators on Cinderella and Thor PD Jim Clay and Haris Zambarloukas are here again – the DoP using his 65mm lens to great wide-screen effect, but Branagh’s direction is as stale as the cast whose performances are stuffy and lacklustre – for the most part.
Johnny Depp’s rake Ratchett is Dillinger warmed-up, Judi Dench’s Russian princess is stiff and detached; Penelope Cruz plays her Spanish missionary with the gloom of eternal repentance; Willem Dafoe’s detective has the poker face we’d expect from a sleuth and Michelle Pfeiffer feels almost on her last legs. But Olivia Coleman is the standout giving real verve to her Hildegard Schmidt. Sporting a ludicrous moustache, Branagh is joylessly pompous as Hercule Poirot. In a nod to the 21st century, Sean Connery’s army colonel has been replaced by Dr. Arbuthnot (Odem), who also happens to be black.
Agatha Christie based her novel loosely on the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and the director has chosen black and white for the Armstrong family-related flash-backs, but then also used the same for selected scenes on the train, muddling the narrative even further. There are too many embarrassing moments, worst of all the grand finale in the snow: Poirot has decided to seat all twelve suspects on a bench at the entrance to the train tunnel, like naughty kids waiting for a school detention. Despite a massive budget, this stolid costume drama looks like an exhibit from some crusty museum featuring the mummified characters from Norman Bates’ motel. AS
NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE