Murder on the Orient Express
Under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, the best that the latest star-studded adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express can hope for is a manslaughter charge.
Just barely entertaining enough through the lens of his typical workmanlike style to stave off sleep, the whodunnit offers a few exceptional, long tracking shots and about the same number of overhead ones within the close confines of the titular train. But with little else memorable of which to speak, these standout visuals sit as mere remnants of the exciting film this one could have been.
Branagh placing himself in front of the camera brings its own set of drawbacks, though the issue isn’t necessarily directing himself — that worked as recently as 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit with Branagh as the CIA thriller’s Russian cyber-villain. It’s the prominence of the part that’s troubling.
After seemingly settling into his new life as a supporting actor, thrusting himself back into a leading role, especially one as involved and familiar as Hercule Poirot, doesn’t quite succeed.
Branagh’s take on the world famous, generously mustachioed Belgian detective isn’t compelling enough to carry Murder on the Orient Express alone, as seen through a rickety introductory section in Jerusalem marred by poor blocking and editing that all but neuters its “big” finale.
Instead, the film doesn’t start to click until the other players trickle in and begin to move the plot forward, though beyond shady art dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and husband-hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), no character is written to the extent that an impression may be made.
Hot off co-screenwriting credits for Blade Runner 2049 and Logan, Michael Green offers Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi and Josh Gad minimal chances to shine as suspects in Ratchett’s murder and also doesn’t provide much of an opportunity to see if Daisy Ridley is capable of more than a Star Wars heroine.
Elsewhere, attempts at visual variety by having Poirot interview the potential killers in different locations feel superfluous with writing this uneven and direction this uninspired while B&W flashbacks to a past criminal act that may be the key to the caper unintentionally raise more questions than answers.
Murder on the Orient Express’ great success, however, may be inspiring viewers to revisit Sidney Lumet’s far superior 1974 version or see it for the first time. Serious or not, Branagh’s version concludes with series aspirations, but if Albert Finney’s Poirot wasn’t granted a second mystery to solve, Branagh’s definitely shouldn’t get one.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: 20th Century Fox)