Murder on the Orient Express – train wreck

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, produced by Kenneth Branagh, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring er… Kenneth Branagh has several faults, the chief of which is Branagh himself.

Branagh has chosen to play Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as a sort of Indiana Jones with a funny accent and a silly moustache. The accent drifts in and out like a man in a coma who hears his wife shouting at him while the moustache bestrides his face like a walrus, all grey bristles with a funny tuft on his bottom lip like a pile of ash. He uses his walking cane as a weapon, using it to break open a locked door, catch a bad guy and fight another bad guy. Poirot should not be a physical character; the whole point is that he does everything with ‘ze little grey cells’ and uses his wit and intelligence to escape physical confrontation.

Branagh gives himself most of the lines and casts Johnny Depp as the villain of the piece. (Plot spoiler; he gets murdered). Depp used to be one of the world’s most beautiful people and was once one of the finest actors of his generation (until Pirates of the Caribbean); now, he looks like the picture of Dorian Grey, all the drug and drink fuelled wife-beating ravages of time etched on his ageing swarthy face. Is the scar on his face make-up or the only thing he got from his disastrous marriage? Who knows. Oh Johnny, where did it all go wrong?

The other cast members are the usual British thespian suspects. Appearing in an Agatha Christie film is the artistic equivalent of old people who move to God’s waiting room in Eastbourne or Bexhill; it’s where they go before they die. They have little to do and do even less; this is Branagh’s film and don’t you forget it. The sainted Judi Dench dials in a Judi Dench performance, Derek Jacobi tops up his pension with a couple of lines, Willem Dafoe takes a break from voice-overing commercials, Penelope Cruz wields her Spanish accent, Michelle Pfeiffer shows there’s always a role in Agatha Christie for faded Hollywood stars while Olivia Colman speaks a few lines in German. Wow, acting from the woman now cast as our Queen! Oh, and a couple of starlets get their shot at playing starlets.

The whole film is a triumph of style over substance and the joys of CGI. But even crucial elements of style are missing. This is the fabled Orient Express, but there is little opulence on show, nothing that makes you want to catch the train. Even the avalanche that derails the train on a rickety bridge so that the mystery can happen, stranded in the snowy wastes of Bulgaria, looks fake.

The trouble with the story is once you know the solution, you know the solution and Branagh makes no attempt to introduce any tension or suspense – ‘you know the story’ he seems to be saying, ‘so why should I make an effort?’ And he doesn’t.

The whole point of a Christie story is the big reveal at the end: Poirot gathers the characters together in a drawing room or an opulent parlour and goes through the mystery, teasing out the solution and the guilty culprit. Not for Branagh. The big reveal here lasts for a few minutes and takes place in a tunnel, not in the train. There is no explanation of how Poirot has solved the mystery; just that he has; perhaps he read the book.

Branagh’s main problem is that this has been done before and so much better. Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet have all played this character and filmed this story and done it so much better. If this was an ITV production, showing on the telly on Christmas Day and you could watch it, drifting in and out of consciousness, sated with brandy butter and too many Quality Street, it might pass the time, but on the big screen, in a cinema where you’ve paid good money to see it? Forget it.

The other main problem for me was the beginning. For some reason, Poirot is in Jerusalem solving the mystery of a theft from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the three suspects are a Christian, an Arab and a Jew. (Sounds like a joke). We see the fastidious Poirot checking his breakfast eggs before solving the mystery and catching the bad guy with his trusty Indiana Jones walking cane. He then catches a boat to Istanbul and boards the train. Why? No idea.

The film ends with Poirot leaving the train and being met by someone who says he’s needed in Egypt because there’s been a death on the Nile. Which is amusing until you think about the Christie story and Poirot’s involvement and then it’s all wrong: a bit like this film.

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