Critics and laypeople alike have a tendency to lament the dearth of remakes and reboots that Hollywood foists upon us. The truth is, without a spectacular idea that is also spectacularly executed, original films rarely make money, but nostalgia-fueled remakes are usually sure bets for studios. The best remakes update their stories to suit a contemporary audience; the worst feel lazy, a waste of both your time and your money.
Unfortunately, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express falls under the latter category.
First published in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express is widely regarded as one of Agatha Christie’s best mysteries, if not one of the greatest mysteries of all time. It’s been regularly adapted for film and television, most notably in 1974 by Sidney Lumet with a famously stacked cast (Ingrid Bergman! Sean Connery! Lauren Bacall! Ad infinitum!). No matter which version you first encounter, it’s a mystery that sticks with you like only a Christie can. The resolution is not clean and tidy — it’s troubling and so very human. Christie changed the mystery genre when she removed the dispassion and cold logic for which detectives like Sherlock Holmes were known and forced her detective, the inimitable Hercule Poirot, to encounter cases that were messy and to solve them not just with logic, but with feeling.
The best Christie adaptations reflect this, but Branagh, who directs as well as stars in Murder as Poirot, seems to have missed the memo there. No one in his truly incredibly cast — including (deep breath) Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Tom Bateman and (ugh) Johnny Depp — stands out, and no one character is interesting. Not even Poirot. And that’s a shame when, in the right hands, Poirot can be such a delight.
The movie hangs on a moral dilemma that Poirot — a man who sees the world as it is supposed to be, who knows definitively the difference between right and wrong — cannot unravel. There is so much drama to be mined from a case that completely overturns a brilliant detective’s rigid worldview, but it’s nowhere to be found in Branagh’s Murder. Instead, Poirot first voices his internal crisis to a photograph of his deceased love (who looks suspiciously like a young Emma Thompson — seriously, Branagh?), and then shouts it at the suspects who are unsubtly arranged into a shot that recreates da Vinci’s Last Supper. Because that’s never been done before.
Perhaps the lack of drama can be blamed on Michael Green’s script, which would be unfortunate considering he’s had a pretty fantastic year with various writing and story credits for Logan, Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049, as well as the first season of American Gods. More than anything, though, I think Branagh was probably just bored. He attempts to inject some life into the movie with some inventive but ultimately misguided shots that attempt to enlarge a confined train set. A similar tactic worked in 2011’s Thor, where Dutch angles and strange frames created a superhero movie that felt like an actual comic book, but it fails pretty spectacularly here. Branagh’s direction in Murder is the kind you notice in a bad way, leaving the viewer profoundly annoyed instead of quietly impressed.
It’s a little too obvious by the end that 20th Century Fox was hoping it could finagle Murder on the Orient Express as a soft intro to a Poirot-verse, and hugely disappointing that it’s not going to happen simply because they played this remake too safe. Does Poirot deserve the treatment Guy Ritchie gave to Sherlock Holmes? Decidedly not, but that treatment was completely out of left field, it was fun and it brought in a decent amount of money for Warner Brothers. It would’ve been nice to see something similarly innovative for this new iteration of Hercule Poirot.
Too bad, really. Murder on the Orient Express should have a tailor-made audience in mystery lovers and classic film buffs, but once word of mouth starts, I doubt anyone will bother to see it. Branagh’s take on Poirot is just so boring, and he only succeeds in making this classic mystery feel dated and contrived. Not even the part where literally everyone hates Depp can save this movie, which is also too bad. I was really counting on that.