There's not a lot you can do with Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Though blessed with one of the great denouements in golden-age crime fiction, the story consists of little else but stilted interviews with cardboard suspects who shed clues as snakes shed skin. Sidney Lumet knew that and, making few efforts to expand or subvert the text, threw gorgeous production values at the screen to deliver the 1974 rainy-afternoon classic.
Kenneth Branagh has followed one of Lumet's leads by stuffing the film with contemporary celebrities. More than a few viewers will have fun observing that Judi Dench is Wendy Hiller, Daisy Ridley is Vanessa Redgrave, Michelle Pfeiffer is Lauren Bacall and so forth. Cynics will dryly celebrate the news that, playing the Richard Widmark role, Johnny Depp is not long for the world. Sure enough, the hoodlum is soon stabbed to death and all other passengers on his carriage are placed under suspicion. Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is here to patch together the truth.
Most of the actors get along all right. Ridley feels a little young. Dench is barely there. Penélope Cruz has fun as a religious nut. The unquestioned MVP, however, is Pfeiffer who, after standing out similarly in Mother!, establishes herself as the person to call when you want someone to vamp a room to cinders. Though famously hard to please, Bacall would have approved.
If Branagh and his screenwriter had coloured within the lines the film could have trundled pleasantly towards its cosy destination. Sadly, they have made a feeble attempt to make Poirot into a fleshed-out human being. Non-too-subtle hints tell us his talent derives from a variety of Asperger syndrome. Every now and then he removes a photograph of a mysterious woman and sighs pathetically like a gambler contemplating a losing bookmakers’ slip. You may as well try and flesh out a cyberman.
Branagh the director makes equally pointless efforts at visual innovation by establishing bravura shots for their own sake. The discovery of the body is filmed from above like something from Lars Von Trier's Dogville. The final reveal begins with the suspects arranged along an exterior table in the style of Leonado Da Vinci's Last Supper. Why? Because he can.
None of this would matter if the mystery ticked along at the required pace. But key clues have been removed. Vital pointers have been taken down. The result is a broken mechanism whose wheezes and clanks offer only hints of Lumet’s delightful film.
I am still wondering why you’ve gathered us all together.