Agatha Christie’s story of murder and mayhem and a moustachioed detective comes to vivid life on the big screen with, as they used to say, more stars than there are in the heavens. Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley play travellers on the luxurious train and all are suspected of doing a dastardly deed by Hercule Poirot, the legendary Belgium detective played by director and star Kenneth Branagh.
Set in 1934, a time when women wore afternoon dresses, men donned flat hats and the Orient Express was seen as the epitome of first-class steam-age travel. Poirot, looking for peace and quiet, some downtime between cases, joins the Orient Express in Istanbul, heading for Calais for a much-needed holiday. “Three days free of care, concern the crime,” says friend Bouc (Tom Bateman).
On board is a colourful collection of characters. There’s Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her obedient maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); the racist German academic Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); “husband huntering” American widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); the troubled Countess Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and her ballet star husband, Russian dancer Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin); Spanish missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz); British governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and American art dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his butler, Masterman (Derek Jacobi) and private secretary, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). “There’s nothing like a triangle of strangers pressed together on a train with no purpose but to go from one place to another.”
One of them is murdered and one is a murderer. Vacation or not, there is a crime to be solved and only one man for the job. “My name is Hercule Poirot,” says the elaborately moustachioed detective, “and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Thus the “Avenger of the Innocent” goes fishing for clues in a barrel of red herrings.
Lush production design and old school story telling gives this version of “Murder on the Orient Express” a Masterpiece Theatre vibe. It is a parade of great faces and attention to period details with a slight updating in the character’s ideas about race but while the train may be speeding along on tracks of steel, the story isn’t.
Branagh revels in the deduction phase of the tale, shining a spotlight on Poirot’s process. He’s a great character and Branagh is clearly having a good time playing him but his larger-than-life presence sucks much of the air out of the room, leaving the others gasping. Individually the sprawling cast aren’t given much to do, many reduced to little more than cameo appearances. The real mystery is why Branagh would assemble such a stellar cast and then not give them anything to do.
Even more frustrating are several of Branagh’s stylistic choices. Beautiful sets, and frequently, beautiful performers are obscured by odd cinematography. Pfeiffer’s big entrance is shot in an impressive tracking shot that spends more time showing the outside of the train than the actors. Later a crucial revelation is inexplicably shot from above, showing only the backs of the actor’s heads. The camera is almost constantly in motion and while it helps create a sense of forward movement it can be distracting. However, when it focuses on the period details it is a pleasure to gaze upon.
At its core “Murder on the Orient Express” does end with a morally interesting question but doesn’t spend enough time with its characters—save for the great detective who is clearly being set to be the focus of a franchise—for us to get fully invested in whodunit in question.