Not quite a train wreck – but bloody close.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is one that’ll stand the test of time; a kinetic, energetic, convincing performance. As an audience, it’s both thrilling and amusing to watch him work. Whereas Branagh’s Poirot in his respectable Murder On The Orient Express, is simply of a different era – a criticism which applies to the film as a whole.
Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is enjoying some much needed rest after solving countless crimes. While on board the luxurious Orient Express, a passenger is killed. He is then thrown into action to solve another case.
The trailer for Branagh’s whodunnit gave a classic tale a contemporary feel, with a punky soundtrack and a top cast featuring some fairly fresh talent. The marketing machine for the film has been riding high on the hype train ever since, but unfortunately that is soon to come to a halt, as regretfully, it is a disappointment.
We open in Jerusalem, at the Wailing Wall. Three Rabbis are accused of stealing a precious artefact, causing the city to be hellbent on riots. Poirot is called in after enjoying a breakfast of two not-so-perfect eggs (he blames the chickens) and bam, solves the case. This is intended to introduce us to “probably, the greatest detective in the world” and ideally invest us in his character, but the case he solves just isn’t interesting enough to immediately get us there. The unavoidable, mind-boggling moustache – as impressive as it is – aside, generally it is a captivating performance from the director, faultlessly leading a French accent through the mystery caper. It’s just a problem that the character himself isn’t as engaging as modern detectives such as Sherlock and Luther. We’re spoiled for choice for detectives; Poirot simply, for me, doesn’t have a place. The cast as an ensemble are incredibly strong, no single member being particularly short-changed or not giving their best. Let’s run some of the more notable cast members, starting with Daisy Ridley.
She plays Miss Mary Debenham, aka the Governess, riding on the train alongside Leslie Odom Jr’s Dr. Arbuthnot (although they ‘don’t know each other’). Ridley is a remarkable talent in the industry today; regretfully attached to a certain galaxy far, far away, she needs to be praised on the terms of her skill as a dazzling performer. Michele Pfeiffer is a sleazy, sexy mistress and works that role perfectly, immersing herself in a delightfully raucous, charismatic showcase. Josh Gad brings out some fantastic acting chops as Hector MacQueen, nicely never resorted to any form of comic relief, rather, he handles some of the more aggressive, weightier confrontations between himself and Poirot – it’s pleasant reminder of Gad’s fantastic performance in 21, this time he’s successfully mantled intensity. And finally, Johnny Depp, who for the first time in donkeys actually seems to be putting work into a role that isn’t an offshoot of Jack Sparrow – he’s sneaky, suspicious and gripping.
Also on the payroll is Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi and Willem Dafoe. It’s an astonishing gathering of pure performers – in a way it’s a sort of novelty to see a level of consistent skill among so many in one movie. It never feels overpowering, rather, in this case, the old “too much of a good thing” saying does not apply.
The huge, gaping, aggravating issue is the poor screenplay. Branagh’s direction is lavish, taking in some rich production design and some stunning cinematography – on board the train you’ll feel like you’re in Agatha Christie’s original novel. But the film has a tricky issue of taking itself way too seriously in places, particularly during an awry confrontation between Ridley, Odom Jr and Branagh that felt ill-fitted and questionably put together, and sometimes having a bit too much fun, for example Judi Dench’s character, whilst originally written as an intimidating figure, has far more deadpan humour than sincerity. Aside from one tickling line about Poirot’s comparison to the god Hercules (“I do not slay lions”) there’s one too many scenes with the detective laughing into ‘his Dickens’.
The original tale of the suspenseful rail journey has an interesting ending (don’t worry, no spoilers). However, it is utterly botched in this update, feeling a bit like a whodunnit without a proper “dunnit”. If the film had focused much, much more on further building the deceit and tension between the wholesome characters but at the same time, taking more time to not rush a sadly, ineffective climax, it could have been terrific. It’s inoffensive – better yet, it has absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. Throughly underwhelming.