All of suspects have been rounded up. This is the ultimate whodunit and one of them did it. Yes, one of these A-listers switched the Moonlight and La La Land Oscar cards around back in February and good old Sir Ken’s here to get to the bottom of it. This is Murder on the Hollywood Express 2, the long awaited sequel to Sidney Lumet’s similarly star-studded part one back in 1974. Both are, of course, better known as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Numerous adaptations of Christie’s murder mystery all-timer precede Branagh’s take on the tale and, as precedents go, they make for a daunting line up; one boasts Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, and another, David Suchet’s definitive take on Belgian detective Poirot. To compete, Branagh has assembled an astonishing line up (Judi Dench! Derek Jacobi!), his budget’s big and the stakes have never been higher. What’s odd, then, is just how unambitious it all feels.
For all the resplendence of his cast, it’s hard not to feel that Branagh isn’t really pushing any of them to work. Michelle Pfeiffer shines in perhaps the meatiest – certainly the cheekiest – role as American motormouth Mrs Hubbard but those such as Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman and, indeed, Dench and Jacobi, can’t help but appear simply there for the ride. There’s a nice dramatic turn from Josh Gad and, even, a restrained Johnny Depp.
But what of Poirot himself? Branagh has charm enough to win hearts in his left eyebrow alone so it’s little surprise to find his take on the character is far more likeable than Finney’s bristly performance but in mannerisms Suchet’s shadow remains a burden he can’t quite shake. Looking for all the world like a Hergé illustration, an opening sequence comically introduces Poirot’s quirks (‘Why do hens lay eggs of different sizes?’ he bemoans over breakfast) ahead of the darker touches to come. Plaudits are due for his baring most ebullient display of philtrumic growth since Gala asked Salvador Dali for the time, yet the deductive rhythms of Michael Green’s script feels oddly Holmesian, whilst bursts of newly-added action never quite fit. Point on the roof of the train is no-sell silliness. Also at odds would be a forced preoccupation with the detective’s supposed former lover, Katherine (‘aghhh…mon amour’).
Set in 1934, Branagh’s Murder is, however, one of lavish production design, with vistas splayed across a vast 65mm print. There’s more than a little of A Passage to India here too, Lean’s eye for landscapes gaining emulation through glorious shots of a hot, sandy Jerusalem and cold, snowy mountains. Malta, New Zealand, Italy and Surrey (yep) all lend vast scenery to an otherwise contained plot. As for the train itself, chugging along a la Hogwarts Express, the Orient is naturally splendid, with Branagh relishing any and all opportunities to frame is cast through interior window refractions. Equally delightful would be the costumes, crafted by a forty-one-person-strong Wardrobe Department. This is confectionary crime and perfect for Sunday afternoons.
None of this is in any way earthy. As murder-mysteries go, it’s actually rather pleasant and escapist an affair. There’s an almost haemophobic lack of gore and a game Cluedo-esque tone to maintain engagement – albeit one that admittedly runs a little out of..steam in the final stretch. There’s very good reason why Christie’s plot has endured and so, when the reveal does come, it is as successfully twisty as ever, neatly set up here in a Last Supper framing. Branagh has, in the nicest possible way, a workmanlike approach to directing that continues throughout the film, this denouement being one of a rare number of striking takes.
Classically filmed, if not a classic, Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express might be as close to family-friendly as a Christie will ever get.’Think of it as a beach-side puzzle’ Tom Bateman’s dandy Bouc tells Poirot when convincing him to take the case and I quite concur. This is exactly how audiences should approach the film.