In his withering 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote that the solution to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was so far-fetched that “only a half-wit could guess it.”
You can sort of see Chandler’s point even as he misses it entirely: The joys of reading Christie have nothing to do with outwitting her, let alone holding her to high standards of plausibility, and everything to do with submitting to the befuddlement and ingenuity of her puzzle-box world. Having been blindsided by the ending of “Orient Express” myself, I’m relieved to note that I am clearly no half-wit — or at least, I wasn’t when I read the novel as a teenager, a happy victim of the author’s limitless ability to surprise.
Certainly no one who has read the book or seen Sidney Lumet’s memorable all-star 1974 adaptation will have any trouble guessing the ending of Kenneth Branagh’s creaky but durable new movie: It builds to the same glorious gimmick. “Murder on the Orient Express” may be the most contrived of Christie’s adventures featuring her famed Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, but it’s also the grandest — the one whose posh railway setting tickles your travel-porn fantasies even as its ingenious construction reveals itself, layer by layer, as a teasingly elaborate put-on.
There can be pleasure in being told a story you already know, a fact surely not lost on Branagh, who has spent much of his career revisiting old texts and excavating fresh meanings. This “Murder on the Orient Express” does boast a few distinct, modernizing touches, notably a few pulpy action beats, a more ethnically diverse cast and a heightened awareness of racial and religious tensions that feels more 2017 than 1934. (The prologue, which finds our sleuth solving a crime in front of the Western Wall, is not just an introduction to Poirot’s steel-trap mind but also a plea for interfaith harmony.)
But for the most part, the movie means to deliver a throwback to an earlier era of escapist entertainment and luxury travel, to situate the viewer in the dramatic equivalent of a plush, first-class seat. The images, fluidly shot on 65-millimeter film stock by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, have a sumptuous, Old World charm. The screenplay by Michael Green (a co-writer on the recent “Blade Runner 2049” and “Logan”) remains faithful to the twists and turns of Christie’s busy plot machinery, not tampering with it so much as hastening it along. When the whole contraption runs out of steam, as it does well before the end, you’re not meant to feel impatient so much as nostalgic.
As for Branagh, you sense that he spent less time fussing around behind the camera than putting on a good show in front of it. When it was first announced that he would be donning Poirot’s impeccable manners and even more impeccable mustache, it wasn’t at all clear how he would stack up next to such memorable past interpreters as Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and, best of all, David Suchet of the long-running British TV series.
In fact, Branagh’s performance turns out to be the movie’s one fully realized element, the unnecessary addition of a long-ago love interest notwithstanding. With teasing elegance and supple gravity the actor brings out not only the detective’s mental agility but also his very human, irritable side, his near-pathological insistence on neatness and symmetry. You understand, on an almost visceral level, why Poirot can’t abide murder and the moral disorder it brings into the world. As for the mustache, it’s nothing short of a tonsorial stunner, so big and scene-stealing you start to wonder if it should qualify as one of the murder suspects.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The victim is a well-dressed, ill-tempered gangster type named Ratchett, which even those unfamiliar with the story will guess from Johnny Depp’s scarred face and menacing scrape of a voice. Ratchett and Poirot soon find themselves aboard the Simplon-Orient Express from Istanbul to Calais with more than a dozen other passengers, all of whom wind up stranded when the train gets stuck in a snowdrift — a perfectly unplanned catastrophe that removes any doubt, after Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his compartment, that his killer is still on board.
The sense of mounting suspicion and paranoia to some extent works against the actors, who never fully mesh as an ensemble — a problem that Lumet circumvented with his more cohesive, leisurely approach to the story. Branagh’s movie, rushing to reach its destination in under two hours, gives the characters short shrift and unwittingly reinforces the story’s class disparities: The A-listers tear into their roles with gusto while the others, among them Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s boisterous businessman, Willem Dafoe’s German-accented professor and Marwan Kenzari’s personality-deficient train conductor, linger mostly in the shadows.
And why not? Stars will be stars, after all. As the gossipy, much-married Mrs. Hubbard, a role owned by Lauren Bacall in the 1974 film, Michelle Pfeiffer is a tornado of fast-talking silliness and late-surging emotion. The gentle Bible thumper who won Ingrid Bergman her third Oscar is now a bitterly glowering Spanish missionary played by Penélope Cruz, in the process eliminating any need for the novel’s rudest line (“Poor creature, she’s a Swede”). Judi Dench, honoring her contractual obligations to be scowling and imperious under any circumstances, sniffs her way through the part of an aging Russian princess, while the excellent Olivia Colman has rather less to do as her lady-in-waiting.
Scoring a few points for the plebes are Daisy Ridley of “Star Wars” fame as a sly, evasive British governess and Leslie Odom Jr. as the doctor who might be her lover, her consort or both. Derek Jacobi cuts a proper, gentlemanly figure as Ratchett’s valet, while Josh Gad stands out as a shifty secretary, even if his attempt to flee suspicion triggers the first of a few ill-advised action scenes.
Branagh may know better than to mess with a ripping good yarn, but he doesn’t always trust it to stand on its own. He also doesn’t seem entirely certain where to put the camera; I was mystified by the decision to film the discovery of Ratchett’s body with an overhead shot of the outside hallway, a gesture that smacks of clumsy artifice. It’s not the only visual decision that makes us feel cut off from rather than invested in the material, reducing even the opulent details of Jim Clay’s mid-’30s production design to the trappings of an exercise.
The most compelling angle of this particular whodunit still comes down to motive. Ratchett probably deserved his bloody fate, but acts of retribution don’t sit well with Poirot, and long after he has ceased pondering the crime’s logistical riddles, he is troubled by its ethical implications. As cinema or literature, “Murder on the Orient Express” may be little more than a clever parlor trick. But in its final moments, even this overstuffed, underachieved movie offers a morally unsettling reminder that — with apologies to Chandler — the art of murder isn’t always as simple as it appears.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’
Rating: PG-13, for violence and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In general release