Of the dozens and dozens of books Agatha Christie wrote during her prolific career, none is perhaps as famous as her 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. A riveting whodunit set on the famed train, Express has not only sold a gajillion copies, it’s been adapted (all with reverential faithfulness) as a movie in 1974, a radio play, and twice on TV. The latest comes courtesy of director Kenneth Branagh, and it’s produced by Kenneth Branagh, and it stars Kenneth Branagh as the famed detective Hercule Poirot.
In each of the 30-plus Poirot cases Christie wrote, the brilliant little Belgian never once hijacked the proceedings; she always let the entire ensemble of colorful characters and the ingenious plot carry her books, with the quirky Poirot there only to solve the crime. Here, however, the writer/producer/director has created The Branagh Show, taking what had all the potential in the world and instead keeping most of it for himself. It makes you slowly come to realize that we probably never needed this movie in the first place.
Express certainly has its share (and then some) of colorful characters, and each is played by a member of the cinema’s Who’s Who, including Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, and Daisy Ridley. But instead of being a delicately-crafted ensemble film, as the 1974 film so brilliantly was, Branagh’s version puts he himself front and center while leaving everyone else in the dust.
It all begins with a tedious and wholly unnecessary Poirot-focused prologue involving soft-boiled eggs, camel poop, and a stolen church relic. Yes, we know the detective is eccentric and a bit odd—let’s get to it.
Once the action finally does move to the train, things get a little better as we finally get to see glimpses of the motley crew of characters, along with, of course, a dead body and a murder to solve. And though the sweeping vistas are stunning to behold, as the train chugs through snow-capped mountain ranges and sun-dappled valleys on its way from Istanbul, the goings-on inside the train are much less exciting. Branagh relies on often-distracting camera gimmicks, such as shooting as if we’re up on the catwalk looking down at a stage, orchestrating pointless extended tracking shots, or shooting through beveled glass over and over again.
The screenplay is the work of Michael Green, who just a month ago wowed critics and audiences with the script for Blade Runner 2049. Before that he wrote the script for May’s Alien: Covenant and March’s Logan. You may not find a quartet of movies as disparate as these (especially over the course of eight months), but each shows a man (or chameleon?) with bona fide talent. Express is easily the weakest of the bunch, but it still has a handful of moments that cause a genuine chuckle or a quick fright.
Overall, Express simply never gets enough steam going to make the journey a success. A few of the characters are relegated to the background, and Branagh makes sure the rest can’t hold a candle to his pedantic Belgian detective. And it all culminates with an overly-dramatic ending that leads straight into an almost hilariously overt set-up for a sequel. It’s not enough to make you want to stop the train to get off, but it’s far from the first-class service Christie’s tale deserves and has, in fact, received in the past.