Kenneth Branagh should have stuck to his stated mission of adapting as many of Shakespeare’s plays to films as he could. Choosing to remake an Agatha Christie novel that has been already done to crisp-roast perfection (by Sidney Lumet in 1974) was a mug’s game from the start. The least Branagh and company could have done would have been to set a bright tempo for a movie that succeeds more at inducing sleep than entertaining its audience.
If you don’t already know the who-done-it payoff from Christie’s book, your movie-watching hours will be better filled surveying Sidney Lumet’s favored 1974 version. For one thing, Lumet’s movie has a more watchable, and enjoyable, cast going for it.
In Lumet's version Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York present an undeniable wall of talent as compared to Branagh’s motley crew of mismatched, and largely unknown, thespians.
Here, Johnny Depp adds an odd spin as Edward Ratchett, the one who will be done in whilst riding on the train of the film’s title. Needless to say, Depp’s presence is barely felt even if sorely missed once he’s gone. We are left with Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Derek Jacobi to do the heavy lifting as Branagh proceeds over the dramatically limp ceremony as the world’s most renowned detective, Hurcule Poirot.
For his self-directed role Branagh creates a character whose tight-lipped way of speaking emphasizes his moral compass. Branagh’s uptight portrayal is intriguing enough but never leans far enough into the realm of self-deprecating humor that seems appropriate for such a golden opportunity. Poirot needs to borrow some from Hulot (see Jacque Tati’s Monsieur Hulot movies).
Aside from a couple of sight gags and a pinch of slapstick, Michael Green’s script never dredges up comic riches that seem to lurk at the bottom of Agatha Christie’s source material. A few impressive set pieces and scene study fodder for acting students, this “Murder on the Orient Express” is a paper-dry mystery at best.
Rated PG-13. 114 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)