“Murder On The Orient Express” was one of Agatha Christie’s most popular novels. Written (and based) in 1934, it’s the tale of a dozen people — including a mobster, a princess, a governess, a doctor, an American loudmouth, an Italian car salesman, an English butler, a German maid, a French conductor, and a Swedish nurse — on a luxury train ride from Istanbul to Calais. The trip is interrupted by two events: an avalanche that knocks the locomotive off the tracks, and the murder of one of its passengers. Fortunately, the famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on board, and it’s up to him to determine which of the other passengers is the killer.
Kenneth Branagh plays Poirot, complete with the kind of mustache that, in 1934, was a masterwork of whiskery, but today would only be worn by a man desperate to proclaim himself ironic. Branagh also directed, and the movie looks beautiful, from the claustrophobic interiors to the shots of the train stuck atop a trestle. In one scene, he uses a very clever overhead angle of several people in conversation. In others, the snow-laden route really pops off the screen, thanks to CGI, but that sort of movie trickery don’t make its pace any quicker.
That is the biggest problem with “Murder On The Orient Express.” If you were reading Christie’s book, she could elaborate on each of the characters, and you’d have time to put the book down between chapters to absorb all that information. Unfortunately, on the big screen, all of that character detail is left out — and still the plot doesn’t move any faster than the train stuck in the snow. Without all of that exposition about the suspects, the mystery comes to a conclusion in which Poirot reveals information about each of the passengers that was never shared with us as viewers.
I was reminded of Neil Simon’s “Murder By Death,” in which the world’s most famous mystery writers were gathered for a dinner by someone who was sick of them keeping vital information from their readers until the last few pages, when their detectives whipped out a miraculous revelation and solved the crime. By the time we reach that point in “Murder On The Orient Express,” it’s not anti-climactic, it’s just boring.
Aside from Branagh, the cast includes Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”), Josh Gad (so good in last month’s “Marshall”), plus Johnny Depp (doing a ridiculous gangster accent), and Michelle Pfeiffer (who also sings the song heard over the closing credits that you won’t stick around for and will never hear again).
Compare that to the cast of the last all-star version of “Murder On The Orient Express,” directed in 1974 by Sidney Lumet: Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Richard Widmark, and Albert Finney as Poirot.
I saw the Lumet version, so I knew what to expect at the end of this remake. But the beginning takes far too long to get us into the adventure, and that long yawning trip the rest of the way isn’t worth the price of the ticket. While this adaptation of Christie’s story may have had a good opening weekend, I’d bet that word of mouth will not be good, and its box office numbers will drop dramatically going forward. In that case, the “Death On The Nile” sequel that’s teased in the final scene may be dead before its arrival.
I give this “Murder On The Orient Express” a 4 out of 10.