What is the point of the new version of “Murder on the Orient Express?” Cemented as a diamond-flawless example of the mystery genre, Agatha Christie’s whodunit has previously enjoyed three adaptations for film and TV, with Sidney Lumet’s marvelous 1974 movie widely lauded as the essential screen version.
For Kenneth Branagh—directing, co-producing and starring as Hercule Poirot in this year’s adaptation—improving on perfection is a tall order. Branagh could have, say, updated the version to present day and drastically altered the characters. But a 2001 version already went that blasphemous route, to abysmal returns. (Alfred Molina’s Poirot, the ultimate solitary man, was even given a romantic subplot with one of the passengers!)
So Branagh instead goes back to the well with a serviceable but unnecessary retread. Modifications to the source—an age bracket here, an ethnicity there—are like negligible ingredient changes to a time-honored recipe: It can still be tasty, but the tweaks contribute little to the flavor.
This “Murder” is oddly compelling largely because of Poirot, who is in constant conflict between Branagh’s understated, businesslike approach and the cartoon obscenity of his moustache—a hair-and-makeup monstrosity that seems to spawn its own mini-moustaches during the course of the movie’s 114 minutes. Branagh’s soft-spoken takedowns of passengers’ carefully laid schemes remain a thing of investigative beauty, and the actor’s eyes have the ability to bore through steel, to say nothing of the dermises and fibers and sinews of his mortal quarry—all while the silly ‘stache undercuts his authority.
The rest of the cast, while unable to eclipse the blinding star wattage of Lumet’s original, is eclectic, and selected with a curatorial eye. The titular train’s inhabitants include Penelope Cruz as a tight-lipped missionary, Leslie Odom Jr. as a physician, Willem Dafoe as a shady bigot, Judi Dench as a extravagant princess, Michelle Pfeiffer as a promiscuous American husband-hunter, and Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton as a count and countess traveling under assumed identities. Josh Gad plays the secretary to the story’s murderee—a crooked art dealer embodied by Johnny Depp—a character no one misses, and that many had a motive to eliminate.
The production’s most obvious 21st-century update is also its most unwelcome—abrasive, screechy and transparently fake CGI, deployed at much expense when an avalanche blocks the Orient Express’s progress.
This case will end up challenging Poirot’s black-and-white theories of criminal behavior. As he explains to a police officer early in the film, “there is right, and there is wrong. There is nothing in between,” a blanket statement destined to be refuted. Far be it from me to spoil how he reaches that conclusion, but eliding the climax here is about as necessary as hiding the fact that Romeo and Juliet perish. (During this week’s press screening, even among younger viewers who may be unfamiliar with the source, I heard few gasps of surprise at the big reveal.)
Christie’s ending has become so well known that suspense is nil. And what’s a mystery story without the mystery?
“Murder on the Orient Express” opens Thursday at most area theaters.