**1/2 out of ****
(for violence and thematic elements)
Released: November 10, 2017
Runtime: 114 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom Jr., Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi, Tom Bateman
Dinner theatre on a blockbuster budget.
All of the strengths and weaknesses that such a combination would suggest can be found in the latest cinematic adaption of Murder on the Orient Express.
It’s directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars. He’s an artist whose craft was forged on the boards before he leaped to the screen. Branagh’s best work has always been a glorious marriage of both mediums, his Shakespeare adaptations in particular.
Now he tackles the Shakespeare of murder mysteries, Agatha Christie, and one of her most enduring sleuths, the French detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh turns Poirot’s famous attention to detail into comic obsessive compulsion, and expands his signature mustache to such an absurd degree that it deserves its own Twitter account.
Clearly Branagh’s having fun, and you feel that energy fuel the first act. It’s when the train gets trapped and the mystery kicks in that the whole jaunty escapade starts to lose steam.
Introducing a star-studded ensemble and bringing them together is usually the slog that must be endured to get to the good stuff. Here, it’s the opposite. The first half-hour setup is lively, piqued with a sophisticated wink. It’s gorgeous, too, as Branagh opens up the stagey proceedings with a 65mm frame (film, not digital) that basks in an epic Old Hollywood grandeur.
Sure, each character has a heightened self-conscious awareness of the stock role they fill, but each actor relishes their parts with just the right touch. They’re getting a kick out of it and so are we.
Until we aren’t.
A lavish trip aboard the titular train comes to a screeching halt when an avalanche of snow stops it in its track. On the first night stranded, one of the elite passengers is stabbed to death and, natch, everybody’s a suspect. This is when things start to plod.
It’s not that the tone gets too serious for its own good, or isn’t serious enough. It’s that the spirited potboiler starts to go through the motions.
The second act is a series of individual interrogations between Poirot and each passenger, but despite Branagh continuing to find inspired ways to utilize a wide visual canvas, the investigation becomes perfunctory and static, exposing motives and doubts in equal measure.
Tension never builds. The plot machine simply churns. We’re never given reason to become invested in any of these characters beyond how they service the construct, which leaves us barely curious about who the culprit is.
Branagh tries to spice the reveal with directorial flourish, but by that point it’s too little too late. It lands with a whimper, not a gasp, and you may actually pronounce Poirot’s verdict before he does (just as the woman sitting next to me did, deflated by the obvious inevitability).
Poirot’s final exchange hints at a possible sequel that would adapt another of his most beloved cases. There’s enough class, opulence, and charm on display here to make that a not unwelcome prospect. But next time, we’ll need to actually care about whodunit, not just wonder.