Quirky direction plus a star-studded cast equals decent remake
It’s nothing that needs shouting from the rooftops, but it does seem to me that Kenneth Branagh is having a pretty good year, movie-wise.
His steadfast performance as a British naval officer in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was one of the chief highlights of that remarkable film from earlier this year. And now there’s his ultra-eccentric portrayal of Hercule Poirot in the new film version of Murder on the Orient Express, which he also directed—in eccentric and (at times) spectacular fashion.
Mildly tweaked and “updated” but basically faithful to the Agatha Christie original, Branagh’s version of the Poirot/Christie story is worthy of the company it keeps with the 1974 movie version (directed by Sidney Lumet, with Albert Finney in the Poirot role) and the Masterpiece/PBS version with David Suchet as Poirot. This version sticks to the post-World War I setting of the original, but applies dibs and dabs of historical hindsight to certain details of character and situation.
Branagh’s cast can’t match the dazzling star power of Lumet’s cast in the ’74 version, but there are plenty of stellar faces and presences on hand here just the same. In addition to Branagh himself, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad have roles of some consequence as the mysteries aboard that snowbound luxury train unfold once again.
Branagh’s Poirot is a tightly wound perfectionist sporting a monstrous handlebar mustache that sometimes comes to look like the sort of longhorn hood ornament that a party-loving cattle rancher might put on a pink Rolls Royce. Be that as it may, this Poirot is also a genius-level fussbudget with a small but very telling touch of the tragicomic buffoon to him.
Branagh the director, however, seems more the exuberantly antic extrovert here—a second-string movie magician in the Orson Welles mold, reveling in the extravagant visions that the machinery of the movies makes possible. Branagh uses CGI and bizarre camera angles to wild, near-surreal effect for scenes whose main action is mostly a matter of intimate and/or fraught conversation.
There’s no clear or obvious reason for these technical displays, but observing an important conversation from the vantage point of a camera looking straight down at the tops of the actors’ heads serves a practical purpose while also creating a kind of “god’s-eye-view” poetry.
Branagh seems to have encouraged offbeat subtleties in several of the main performances, but this film doesn’t give that talented cast a whole lot to explore in depth. The best-acted sequence in the film comes fairly early on—a multifaceted conversation between Branagh’s Poirot and the sleazily complex scoundrel played by Depp.