It’s no small task to take on the challenge of directing a classic beloved by so many people. To then also step into the large brogues previously filled by actors such as Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and David Suchet is perhaps just asking for trouble.
Branagh, however, stamps his authority as “probably the greatest detective in the world” from the opening scenes, where Poirot calmly measures his breakfast eggs in a Jerusalem hotel as a large and rowdy crowd nearby awaits his verdict on the theft of a religious relic.
Desperate for a holiday after solving the mystery, he then takes a boat trip to Istanbul, where his plans are interrupted by delivery of a telegram demanding he take up another case. Conveniently – or inconveniently, as it turns out – he has run into his old friend Buoc (Tom Bateman), who is now the director of the Orient Express and is able to secure him a cabin for the train’s trip to France.
It will, Buoc promises, be three days of relaxation: no cares, no concerns, no crime.
But if that were the case, there would be no film.
Also on board the train as it travels through treacherous snowy mountains is an intriguing tangle of enigmatic strangers, the most dubious being American businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who is unnerved by threatening letters he believes are being sent by disgruntled former clients.
On day two, Poirot’s wish for peace is abruptly derailed, along with the train, when an avalanche strikes and a passenger is discovered to have been stabbed to death.
Beseeched by Buoc to solve the mystery before they reach their destination, the detective must unravel myriad clues and red herrings as he puts his fellow passengers under the microscope.
Secrets and lies abound. And everyone is a suspect: there’s Ratchett’s assistant MacQueen (Josh Gadd) and butler (Derek Jacobi); the wealthy, glamorous widow Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); an Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe); the governess (Daisy Ridley) and the doctor (Leslie Odom Jr); the missionary (Penelope Cruz); the Russian princess (Judi Dench) and her maid (Olivier Colman); and the count and countess (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton).
As director, Branagh ratchets up the claustrophobic tension in the train, then offers relief with glimpses of the beautiful mountainous landscape outside, where workers are trying to get the train back on its rails.
As the confident and exacting Poirot – and sporting an enormous coiffed moustache that dwarfs those of his predecessors in the role – he gives a performance that is both charming and amusing. “I see the world only as it should be,” he says, revealing how he notices the cracks that help him to solve a crime. It also explains his quest for perfection in everything from his eggs to the neck ties of others.
Although given little opportunity to shine individually, the ensemble cast is also impressive; Depp’s performances these days tend more to caricature than character, but this is one instance where it works.
The Murder on the Orient Express script has been given a few modern twists by screenwriter Michael Green, but the essential storyline remains the same, so many audience members will already know the answer to the classic whodunit. The pleasure of this remake is in the journey.
Reviews elsewhere have been mixed, with some of the less-kind words used to describe the film including “clumsy” and “downright corny”. But when viewed through contemporary eyes, any screen adaptation of a story which is now many decades old will inevitably have elements that appear contrived or twee.
There’s a wonderfully nostalgic, romantic feeling to this trip on the Orient Express, even with the murder at its heart – and if you’re partial to a good old-fashioned mystery, you’ll likely find the journey very pleasurable indeed.
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