The fourth screen adaptation of a novel over eighty years old, you’d think people would have figured out that the Orient Express isn’t the safest way to travel by now. Nonetheless, a man has once again been murdered on the passenger train speeding its way through Europe, and it’s up to the famed Belgian detective Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot to figure out which of the eccentric passengers committed the crime. Kenneth Branagh both directs and dons the ludicrous moustache of Poirot for this trip, and is joined by an impeccable A-list cast of suspects including Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and Daisy Ridley.
Having never read Agatha Christie’s novel or seen one of the previous adaptations I can’t say how well this version matches the tone or plot of the original, but Branagh seems to have opted for a similar style to Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes films. The production design is sleek and flashy, with stylised flashbacks and the camera smoothly flowing around the train and its inhabitants, and the story peppered with some action sequences to liven things up. Unfortunately Poirot is even less suited to be an action hero than Holmes is and these moments feel ludicrous and often comical. A good mystery requires the time to slowly and thoughtfully piece together all the clues to narrow down the list of suspects, which doesn’t quite fit with the detective fighting off attackers with his walking stick.
At times Murder on the Orient Express feels as though it was only made so that Branagh could be the hero of his own franchise, particularly with an overt reference to Death on the Nile to tease a sequel at the end. Most of the other train passengers are pushed to the side in favour of exploring Poirot’s own quirks and eccentricities and are reduced to the typical one-note characterisations of a murder mystery. There’s the gangster, the butler, the dame, and so on. Fortunately the supporting cast is strong enough to at least make these characters entertaining if nothing else. Pfeiffer is deliciously camp as the flirtatious widow Caroline Hubbard, and the usually comedic Josh Gad delivers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal as the haggard accountant of Johnny Depp’s gangster character Ratchett. Fans of Depp can take comfort from knowing this is one of his most grounded and believable performances in years, echoing his Whitey Bulger from 2015’s Black Mass, while those who’ve gone off the actor since his domestic violence allegations will be pleased to see him killed off at the end of the first act. Apologies for spoiling an eighty-year-old story.
Yet the entertaining performances only carry so far, and when the mystery is solved none of the characters feel developed enough to give the final reveal much of an impact. That’s not to say Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a fun enough ride while it lasts, but it’s unlikely audiences will have as much fun as Branagh and the cast seem to be having.