(out of 5)
The classic Agatha Christie novel whose 1974 adaptation inspired a series of films based on her works (my favourite of them Death On The Nile) is on the big screen once again in this lavish remake by Kenneth Branagh. An exciting and beautifully shot opening sequence has Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, the fussy, arrogant detective who gladly accepts the title of Best In The World without the slightest twitch of his ridiculously ornate moustache, put religious tensions to rest with the solving of a case involving the robbery of a religious relic in Jerusalem. Deciding to take a break before attending to his next assigned case in England, Poirot gladly accepts the invitation of the son of the director of the freshly minted Orient Express to take the train from Istanbul to northern Europe, providing him with luxurious travel and a few days quiet before having to put his genius brain to work again. The problem, of course, is that wherever criminal minds go, crime soon follows, and it is barely the next morning when the crew find the body of a brash American hood (Johnny Depp) stabbed multiple times in his own bed. With an avalanche stopping the train in its tracks in the middle of the Alps, Poirot has plenty of time to interrogate all the passengers and whittle it down to the person with the strongest motive: is it the scowly Russian princess (Judi Dench) traveling with her nervous German maid (Olivia Colman), the pious Catholic nurse (Penelope Cruz, in the role that won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar) who refers to all pleasures as vices, the put-upon assistant to the deceased (Josh Gad) who doesn’t seem sorry to see his master go, or Depp’s valet (Derek Jacobi) who is equally unperturbed? There’s also a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a governess (Daisy Ridley) who don’t want anyone to know that they’re in love, a racist German scientist (Willem Dafoe) on his way to a conference in Germany and, most delicious of all, a free-wheeling divorcee (Michelle Pfeiffer) with more ex-husbands than she can count and a voracious appetite for the next conquest of love. While you might expect that these actors really sink their teeth into the campy possibilities of this stylish indulgence in dinner theatre fun, the tone is surprisingly sincere and the humour generally relegated to a few genuinely amusing punch lines and Pfeiffer’s spirited performance. It’s beautifully photographed and moves at a snappy rhythm, more vigorous in execution and style than Sidney Lumet’s version, which also had a great star-studded cast but really died in a flashback sequence that is handled with greater efficiency here. Where Branagh’s version starts to get muddy is in the film’s conclusion, the motivations reworked slightly but their emotional weight amped up to the point of feeling like a forced (and in my mind unsuccessful) attempt to bring Christie’s harsh moralizing into modern, sensitive times. It’s good that Branagh uses the story as an opportunity to examine Christie’s colonial racism instead of supporting it, something she possibly could have been brought around to understand (maybe), but having Poirot question his own moral convictions would have gotten her back up: I’m not an expert on Christie or her literature but I feel good about assuming that she would balk at Poirot not having every detail prepared and worked out in the finale. Branagh, always looking for ways to show his emotional range, displays surprise at what he learns in the Grand Revelation scene, guessing at motivations and then being informed of something new by the suspects; the conceited and overly confident Belgian sleuth was never caught unawares after the first act of any of his stories and turning him into a reflective and considerate human removes a lot of the clean, snappy satisfaction that his adventures usually provide. The film is a pleasant affair, particularly worth watching to see Pfeiffer walk away with the whole thing, but not a remarkably memorable one.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos
Music by Patrick Doyle
Production Design by Jim Clay
Costume Design by Alexandra Byrne
Film Editing by Mick Audsley