The series of Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot mysteries ITV produced starring David Suchet as the ‘tec with the ‘tache waited twenty years before – almost at the end of their run – mounting an adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express … presumably because it was presumed that not only would almost all of the target audience have seen the 1974 Sidney Lumet film adaptation with Albert Finney but also they would all remember how it came out since it’s one of the Christie stories with a memorable gimmick finale that some purists have painted as not playing fair with the reader. In the interim, there was a discreetly modernised 2001 TV movie with Alfred Molina rather good as Poirot … and that same old solution. But 1974 was several generations of filmgoers in the past, and the remake wagon trundles around inevitably – so here it is again, with Kenneth Branagh sporting the most impressive Poirot moustache yet seen on film, elaborately layered rather than prissily waxed, and also doing double duty as director. If the supporting cast don’t quite have the lustre of Lumet’s assembled suspects, we still get what passes for an all-star assembly – impeccably coiffed and dressed, mostly lying through their teeth to the canny investigator, and packing more than enough hidden motives in their monogrammed luggage to cloud the issue of who stabbed the pretty odious American Ratchett (Johnny Depp) in the sleeper compartment on the title train.
The 1974 film casts a long shadow because it radically changed the way Christie’s brisk, spare puzzle novels were presented on screen. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer – whose Sleuth Branagh comprehensively buggered up in his last mystery remake – faithfully transposed Christie’s intricate plot, but added his own acid wit – giving Lumet’s great cast a chance to do more than just be archly suspicious. And the production lavished attention on the period settings, stressing the luxury of the train and the fashions of the mostly uppercrust types involved – adding an element of nostalgia and lifestyle porn to the simple business of who did what awful thing to which terrible person in the night. There were several big screen follow-ups – a tag to this film alludes to one of them – and a great many TV adaptations, all of which have followed the Shaffer-Lumet format and encrusted Christie’s books with a kind of cosiness that takes away from their cruelty. Dame Agatha is such an establishment figure in crime that her ruthlessness is often overlooked – the backstory of Murder on the Orient Express is based on a horrific real-life crime involving the death of a child, and yet she’s never accused of tasteless exploitation the way crime writers who draw inspiration from, say, the Madeleine McCann or Jamie Bulger cases are.
Michael Green – screenwriter of Logan, Blade Runner 2049, Alien Covenant and Green Lantern – tries to break the story down so it’s not entirely a series of interviews. He even tosses in a modest chase scene and a fight in which Poirot’s unsuitability as an action star is shown up, while Branagh’s camera swoops across frozen landscapes and along the length of the speeding train to add a bit of kineticism. There’s also business with the unattached detective talking to a picture of his lost love, an interracial love story angle and a tiny bit of politics for spice … but the film still keeps having to get back to sorting through a superfluity of clues, including old favourites like the watch stopped at the time of death, the misleadingly monogrammed handkerchief and the button torn off a coat which even Poirot thinks are too good to be true. It doesn’t really give the suspects space to shine. Michelle Pfeiffer probably claws the biggest slice of the pie, grabbing a couple of big speeches and gestures, Josh Gad squirms effectively and Tom Bateman makes something of the usually duff role of the less-perspicaceous sidekick. Otherwise, we get the bare minimum of Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Lucy Boynton,Sergei Polunin (as a kickboxing ballet dancing count with diplomatic immunity) and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, plus a bit too much of Leslie Odom Jr and Daisy Ridley as twitchy lovers. In a desperate attempt to vary the settings, Poirot hauls the whole lot out of the comfy train and has them sit down at a Last Supper table in an icy tunnelmouth to deliver his final lecture.
As the plot-wheels grind, Branagh the director – and Poirot the sleuth – keep getting distracted by perfectly-served meals, bits of plush décor and items of chic clothing. The film pretty much depends on audiences being distracted too – especially since the set-up for the big twist requires Poirot to produce too much of the explanation out of thin air. In truth, despite that ending, it’s not one of Christie’s better plots. An early moment has the great detective stepping in a pile of shit – then putting his other shoe in the mess so things remain in balance. Perhaps that’s a key to reading the film. Or maybe it’s just a joke that doesn’t get a laugh.