Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted for the screen many times, most notably by Sidney Lumet in 1974. In the iconic tale, Christie’s long-running character Hercule Poirot, the genius Belgian detective, finds himself trying to take a bit of a vacation while traveling on a packed luxury train that’s making a three-day journey from Istanbul to England. But he’s interrupted by a murder.
Lumet’s adaptation was popular and well-reviewed, netting six Oscar nominations (and a win for star Ingrid Bergman). And now, 43 years later, Kenneth Branagh has decided to take a crack at the story, both directing the film and playing a mustachioed Poirot.
As it happens, I haven’t seen Lumet’s version. When I found out about Branagh’s upcoming adaptation, I decided to abstain, knowing that the fun of a mystery comes from watching the solution unfold.
Alas: I did not enjoy my travels with this latest iteration of Murder on the Orient Express. It is a plodding and at times inexplicably fake-looking film that sells itself entirely on whatever interest it can borrow from its stars and its famous source material. But it doesn’t have anything particularly compelling to offer — whether you’re already familiar with the story or experiencing it for the first time.
Murder on the Orient Express is a whodunnit on a train
The movie’s main selling point is its cast, a veritable constellation of talent that includes Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Leslie Odom Jr., all stuffed onto a train together and stranded for several days on a bridge in a snowy canyon after an avalanche halts the train’s progress.
Branagh’s Poirot is introduced as a finicky detective who requires his morning soft-boiled eggs to always match one another in height; that hyper-attention to detail clearly serves him well as the world’s greatest detective, and his reputation precedes him wherever he goes. On board the Orient Express, he intends to get some rest, but he’s approached by Ratchett (Depp) — who introduces himself as an art dealer who recently got into some hot water when a shady deal went bad. Ratchett wants to hire Poirot to protect him; Poirot refuses.
Then, after the train is derailed by an avalanche, Ratchett turns up dead, stabbed to death in his first-class cabin. And while the train’s passengers wait for the mechanics to turn up and get it moving again, Poirot sets about solving the mystery. Every person on board is a figure of suspicion.
Poirot goes about his business, inspecting cabins and interviewing individual passengers, who range from a pious missionary (Cruz) to a flirtatious divorcée (Pfeiffer) to a startlingly racist professor en route to a conference (Dafoe). (Several times, it seems as if Murder on the Orient Express might make a statement about racism — it’s set in 1934, after all — but racist sentiments harbored by various people on the train turn out to be a minor details.) As Poirot continues his interviews, he begins to realize that nothing about them is as it seems.
The main problem with Murder on the Orient Express: it’s dull
Johnny Depp is not a particularly popular person in America at the moment; this summer he headlined the latest installment in the increasingly pointless Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and he was previously accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife Amber Heard after she obtained a restraining order against him. So a movie in which Poirot tells Depp’s Ratchett that he won’t protect him because “I do not like your face” seems appealing — doubly so when the character turns up dead at the end of the first act.
But unfortunately, the satisfaction that comes with the disposal of Ratchett is fleeting. Murder on the Orient Express is a whodunnit, but there’s only really one mystery: Why is it so hard to care who done it?
I’m no Poirot, so I can’t say for sure. But I can confirm that Murder on the Orient Express isn’t much fun to watch, and the way in which the movie resolves the mystery doesn’t create enough tension to convince us to worry about finding the culprit.
That’s not to say the movie is entirely charmless. A movie this loaded with talent couldn’t completely flop, though some of the actors — particularly Odom and Colman — are given almost nothing to do.
But there is no suspense at all; we know Poirot’s going to figure everything out eventually, and in the meantime we’re as stuck in the snow as the passengers, none of whom are interesting enough — even when dissected and exposed by Poirot — to engender our sympathies or interest.
In his review of the 1974 version, Roger Ebert praised that film’s comic sensibility, which kept its cramped, character-heavy story from succumbing to inertia. Branagh’s update, though, is rarely funny. It is pretty, in a plasticky kind of way — Branagh shot it on 65mm (which is how I saw it) but the vast snowy landscapes and pink sunsets that the film stock ought to enhance instead look distractingly computer-generated. Why bother?
It seems that Murder on the Orient Express’s main source of lightness is meant to be Poirot, and more specifically his giant mustache, which the film takes every opportunity to lovingly highlight, at one point having Poirot sit up in bed wearing a leather mustache protector strapped to his face. I like a good facial hair situation as much as the next person, but the movie so strenuously relies on it as a punchline that it wears out its welcome.
The perplexing conclusion we reach, watching this Murder on the Orient Express, is that it has very little reason to exist, as a movie. It doesn’t offer any interesting insights on human nature or mystery or even mustaches; Poirot kind of learns a lesson by the end about justice, but it’s ham-fisted. And nobody gets much of a chance to do anything noteworthy except Branagh, which means the film’s all-star cast is shortchanged.
Which leads to the inevitable verdict that Murder on the Orient Express is, for star and director Branagh, more or less what sometimes gets called a vanity project. He wanted to play Poirot, so he made a movie where he could do that, and invited a lot of other famous people to be in it too.
The result is the kind of movie that a lot of people will watch on an airplane or throw on some quiet night at home and find mildly entertaining, the cinematic equivalent of a grocery store pudding cup. It’s a perfectly fine sort of film for those sorts of situations. But with this much talent and resources at its disposal, the real mystery is why Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a five-course feast.
Murder on the Orient Express opens in theaters on November 9.