The new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is a film about a mustache. This culprit boasts the fiendish ability to steal focus from whatever and whomever it’s up against, every time director and star Kenneth Branagh confronts a suspect as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A horizontal wonder, with wavy upturned curls like feathers from the helmet of winged Mercury, the mustache in its totality resembles a miniature train aswirl in locomotive smoke. No mystery could possibly live up to it.
Branagh’s version, working from a script by Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”), chugs out of the station with several things working against it, one being the swank, wit and panache of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film. (If you haven’t seen either the ’74 or the new version of “Orient Express” among the many film and TV Poirot adaptations, try that one.) Also — and this is big — there’s an inherent difficulty in remaking any whodunit, as Branagh learned with his go at “Sleuth.” With whodunits or twist-dependent thrillers, you may give a new version a shot for comparison’s sake, as millions do when a best-selling mystery novel hits the screen. But midway through a middling film adaptation, like this one, you realize it’s the same old clue-delivery mechanism, in a darker mood but also a less lively one.
Eager to establish his Poirot as a man of action as well as intellect, Branagh’s film begins with a Jerusalem 1934 prologue of some promise. For better or worse, mostly worse, there’s a ton of digital trickery and computer-generated effects work, with vistas and avalanches and the train stranded on a treacherous mountain trestle that wouldn’t be out of place in “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Polar Express.” Branagh shot on location in Malta and New Zealand, but the movie looks like digital never-never land.
Poirot is one of many luxe travelers on a suspiciously crowded train from Istanbul to Calais. Michelle Pfeiffer’s the husband-hunting widow. Johnny Depp is Ratchett, the shifty art dealer with the gangster air. Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. are secret lovers, a governess and a doctor. Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi trade finely calibrated sneers as Ratchett’s put-upon associates. Judi Dench is the Russian princess.
Thirty minutes in, one of the passengers turns up with multiple fatal stab wounds. Christie’s story, published in 1934, two years after Graham Greene found his first popular success with “Stamboul Train,” uses the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping as narrative inspiration; as the stalled train awaits rescue, Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one.
Some of screenwriter Green’s revisions are intriguing correctives to the blithely colonialist vibe of Christie’s novel. The interracial couple played by Ridley and Odom Jr. heightens the air of prejudice and caste systems at work. Penelope Cruz, in a minor role, plays a Spanish missionary, her dour character replacing the Swedish missionary Ingrid Bergman played (hilariously) in the ’74 film. Branagh’s Poirot is a tortured man on the inside: Allusions to a lost love abound, and as he homes in on the solution to the crime, his moral crisis practically tears the mustache right off his rails.
Why isn’t it more engaging? Partly, I think, it’s a matter of Branagh not being a very interesting director. He’s made good films (“Henry V,” “Cinderella”) and he was right to shoot “Orient Express” on 65 millimeter film, working with a resourceful cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos. But Branagh’s camera sense is all over the place, restless in distracting ways. There’s a long, back-and-forth tracking shot (the kind of thing I’m usually crazy about) as Poirot boards the train in Istanbul that looks like a wobbly run-through for the real thing. Whole conversations are shot from overhead angles without sufficient visual reason. And while certainly solid (his Belgian accent is more … liquid), Branagh’s performance doesn’t stake out distinctive enough territory to compete with Albert Finney’s Poirot from the ’74 movie, or with David Suchet on British television.
So it’s OK, but only just. I’d be interested to hear how it plays for those unfamiliar with the plot. I’m guessing 20th Century Fox is interested as well.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune’s film critic.
"Murder on the Orient Express" -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence and thematic elements)
Running time: 1:54
Opens: Thursday evening