Kenneth Branagh's somnambulant remake of Murder on the Orient Express is a murder mystery Agatha Christie never intended: Who killed her diabolical fun?
The answer is right under our noses, like the cake frosting mustache under his. Branagh's portrayal of Christie's famed detective Hercule Poirot is only slightly less disappointing than his direction of her material. Murder on the Orient Express lurches when it should creep, buckling under self-inflicted prestige.
Following a prologue presumably intended to be thrilling, Poirot climbs aboard the European luxury train the Orient Express where he soon meets future victim Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a mobster with an even darker past, and his assistant Hector McQueen (Josh Gad, still not up to speed on this dramatic thing).
This is a yarn demanding a murderer's row of actors playing murder suspects. Branagh's cast includes two Oscar winners, four nominees including himself, a Tony winner, a Disney hero and a Jedi. They're draped in period fashions to die for, crammed into ornate train cars with lots of mirrors and beveled glass for split-profile symbolism.
It's a visual confection rivaling Branagh's previous collaborations with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos on Thor and Cinderella. Like those films, Murder on the Orient Express looks prettier than it performs, the camera gliding without tension through hallways, or aimed downward at characters' heads like a light fixture for some unknown, annoying reason.
Christie's 1934 whodunnit is a mystery milestone but its infamous denouement is likely still unfamiliar enough to spoil. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green stay true to Christie's framework if not precise details. Yet the author's classic twist becomes a rushed muddle in Branagh's hands; Sidney Lumet's 1974 version allowed the horror to breathe through clever editing.
Green's screenplay frustrates viewers coming to especially see any actor except Branagh. Depp may have the most face time and he's killed off early. Michelle Pfeiffer senses the project needs energy but shrieking isn't it. Judi Dench retains her Academy Award dignity while Penelope Cruz's wilts a bit. Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe and Leslie Odom Jr. get an incriminating scene or two, enough to make us think more would help the movie.
Murder on the Orient Express is prestige gone off the rails, a tony chunk of nothing that doesn't beg the question whodunnit as much as why?
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Murder on the Orient Express
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman
Screenplay: Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Rating: PG-13; violence, mature themes
Running time: 114 min.