This big-budget production of Murder on the Orient Express is dominated by Kenneth Branagh’s dull, grandiose Poirot, depriving the excellent ensemble cast of opportunity to shine.
Why a big-budget remake of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in 2017? What’s the appeal?
Well, how about a stellar ensemble cast including Kenneth Branagh (as Hercules Poirot), Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench? Plus big-budget contemporary production values to enhance the visuals as the well-heeled passengers are carted in their finery through spectacular mountainous terrain in lavishly appointed carriages? And doesn’t a serve of old-world charm, gentility and murder make a refreshing change from CGI-heavy spectacle featuring super-powered musclepersons in tights? Or ultraviolent gun-fu action-fests? Or glorified demolition derbies?
Well yeah it does, for me at least. Unfortunately, director, producer and lead performer Branagh derails – make that hijacks – the film. His Poirot is on screen for virtually the entire movie, depriving the quality support cast of oxygen. They are mere props for the Great Thespian, given so little to do that it’s difficult to recall anything of note about any of their characters. Michelle Pfeiffer plays a rich widow in search of a new husband, Penélope Cruz – um. Daisy Ridley – um. The rest ditto. Really! An understandably miserable-looking Judi Dench is literally ignored, her part comprising no more than a couple of insignificant lines. What an inexcusable waste of talent.
It’s not as if Branagh’s performance justifies his spotlight-hogging. For a start, his Franco-Belgian accent stinks, and his extravagant and frankly ludicrous sculpture of a moustache compels you to study it throughout, distracting from the dialogue issuing from the mouth beneath. But these are relatively minor gripes. The big problem is the inevitability of comparisons between Branagh and David Suchet, who made the Poirot character his own in the deservedly popular long-running TV series Poirot. Suchet set the bar almost impossibly high, and Branagh doesn’t get close.
Suchet brought a perfect tonal mix of ironic humour and gravitas to the part. He never took himself or the role too seriously, always had a twinkle in his eye. He was savvy to Poirot being sorta ridiculous and mined his comic potential accordingly. In his deft hands, the character was an endearing, waddling eccentric, who would switch to a commanding presence when it came time to reveal the killer.
Branagh, by contrast, plays Poirot with a monotonous grandiosity, taking himself and the character oh-so-seriously. He’s pompous. He’s dull. And worse, dim. “There is only right and wrong, nothing in between” Poirot declares at one point. This from an acute observer of human nature? It takes the rest of the movie for the great detective to develop a more complex understanding. It’s a developmental journey he shouldn’t need to take, and a tedious one for the viewer.
The narrative is simple: one of the passengers is found dead, with multiple stab wounds, and when an avalanche derails the train, Poirot investigates in the certain knowledge that all aboard are suspects and the killer among them.
The fun in a whodunit is to try to figure out the killer in advance of the reveal. To do that, we need information about each of the suspects. Here, they have scant opportunity to speak or tell us anything about their backgrounds or possible motives. Any info we get is through their interactions with the always dominating Poirot. And it’s either too muddled or too limited to give us a fair shot at winning the game. Long before the end, though, you just don’t care.
This film is an indulgence for Branagh. He has erected a monument to his own ego, squandering a talented cast in the process. You’d have to love him as blindly and unreservedly as he evidently loves himself to get much out of the movie. Time, Kenneth, for a little navel-gazing and humility, methinks.
Movie Website: https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/murder-on-the-orient-express
Murder on the Orient Express features: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Michael Green (screenplay), based upon the novel by Agatha Christie
Runtime: 114 min
Australian release date: Murder on the Orient Express in Australian cinemas from 9 Nov 2017
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