It is quite telling when you exit the screening of a film starring Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer and Penelope Cruz and you find yourself discussing its crisp cinematography and striking visuals.
Such is the journey that director-actor Kenneth Branagh has undertaken, that even the might of several Oscar-winning cast members may not be enough to stop this adventure from derailing.
Branagh’s adaptation of the much-loved Agatha Christie novel Murder On The Orient Express is a challenging attempt to repackage a story that has seen several retellings over the decades. How exactly does one recycle a whodunit when pretty much half the audience knows who did it?
The obvious choice, of course, is to flip through a Rolodex listing the who’s who of Hollywood and convince them to star in the film. Just for that Branagh earns a gold star, and an added cookie. But the filmmaker seems to have forgotten the adage along the way, too much of a good thing…
While the tight squeeze of Hollywood A-listers results in a struggle for individual screen time, this excursion also sees the plot whimper on the back burner even as detective Hercule Poirot twirls his ‘tache — and what a thing of beauty that is — en route to solving a grisly murder aboard the Orient Express.
The audience is gradually familiarised with Branagh’s band of grumpy men and women before the train pulls out of the station. But that relationship doesn’t really grow further than a few lines post the introductions.
Johnny Depp appears to have fun with his Edward Ratchett persona, peeling back layers of his chequered past as the train chugs along; unfortunately, Dench’s Princess Dragomiroff is reduced to growling at the good detective and her companion, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), when the script demands.
Cruz doesn’t fare better either, playing the emissary Pilar Estravados, who is left to stir the conscience with her religious prattling — when she isn’t wringing her hands in distress that is. The feisty governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridely), Ratchett’s accountant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Leslie Odom Jr. playing Dr Arbuthnot command more screen time, but only barely; Dafoe as the megalomaniac Professor Gerhard Hardman is an opportunity lost.
Commanding attention from this hodgepodge of characters is Pfieffer playing the flirty widow Caroline Hubbard, whose cheeky countenance makes her a delight to watch as she embarks on the hunt for husband number three… or was it four?
As an investigation into a murder unfolds following an avalanche that derails the train and its many suspects, it is up to Branagh to put his eccentricities to the test and uncover the mystery.
Branagh’s Poirot is a sincere effort at reviving a character that has witnessed several successful screen outings, with Albert Finney’s take on the Belgian detective in 1974 one that few would dare to attempt. The character was further immortalised when actor David Suchet played the fictional detective in the long-running British TV show.
If wondering whether Branagh is successful at making Poirot his own, the answer is a little more complicated than a simple yay or nay. While his slick body language and his physical appearance really pull you into his world, this Poirot is really one for the millennials — a little too hipster perhaps for those who devoured Christie’s crafty stories while growing up.
Playing the director of a film that one stars in is no easy feat, especially when you happen to play the lead character as well. And here’s where Branagh manages to derail this train even before the plot demands it.
Too much time is spent creating those stunning visuals as the majestic train embarks on its voyage from Istanbul, when that could be time spent on flushing out the medley of characters that jumped on board for the ride.
That said, the experimental camerawork and the scenic itinerary at least offer some redeeming moments.
Murder On The Orient Express
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfieffer, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad
Runtime: 115 minutes
Stars: 3 out of 5