The challenge in filming one of the world’s best-loved whodunnits is keeping viewers’ attention while telling a story they already know. Murder on the Orient Express accounts for more than 100 million of Agatha Christie’s estimated two billion worldwide book sales, meaning there’s barely a shred of mystery left to this infinitely familiar mystery.
Consequently, Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded adaptation of an 83-year-old novel shouldn’t have to concern itself with spoilers; the task is weighted more towards stylish depiction of a whodunnit where “how” is arguably a more pertinent question. And this take on the iconic drawing-room potboiler transported to rail tracks is nothing if not stylish.
Right from the start, however, Branagh places a major hurdle in his own path, thanks to the elaborate work of the make-up department. In addition to corralling a busy crew and a coterie of A-list actors, he presumably began most working days sat in a chair while his transformation into Hercule Poirot required the application of some truly remarkable face furniture.
There’s no avoiding that moustache, a creation so dominant it should really have its own carriage on the titular train. It threatens to derail the whole exercise, and coupled with a near slapstick prologue unrelated to the main plot, it arouses the suspicion that the movie is going to be played for laughs, like a Jacques Tati comedy with a side order of killing.
Mercifully, it isn’t too long before we become acclimatised to the great detective’s wacky whiskers, in time for us to meet his enigmatic fellow travellers on the luxury choo-choo. There’s a man-hungry, middle-aged socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer), a short-tempered Russian princess (Judi Dench) and her put-upon companion (Olivia Colman), a stone-faced American gangster (Johnny Depp) and his weary personal secretary (Josh Gad), a young governess (Daisy Ridley), an arrogant academic (Willem Dafoe) and a handful of others.
One of them gets bumped off in the dead of night, and as the train skitters off its track and remains stationary against a snowy backdrop, it’s time for Poirot’s “little grey cells” to get busy.
With so many characters in the frame for the dastardly deed, there is limited screen time for any of them to make a major impression. The old guard of Dench and Derek Jacobi (as a subservient valet – welcome to the 1930s) deliver precisely what you’d expect and little more, so it’s left for what might be described as lesser names to put the most flesh on their ticket-holders’ bones.
Gad is the pick of the bunch, his conflicted bookkeeper Hector MacQueen a totally believable minor whirlwind of ennui and defeatism, and a revelatory Daisy Ridley isn’t far behind as Mary Debenham, a feisty young woman with a whip-smart mind to feasibly rival Poirot’s own – a character many Christie scholars suggest the author based on herself.
Central to everything, of course, is Poirot, and while Branagh isn’t wholly convincing when it comes to the Belgian brainiac’s lighter side (the borderline OCD perfectionism, the off-the-cuff quips), he’s an impressively commanding presence once he gets his teeth into the small matter of solving the case.
Realistically, he’s performing not under the shadow of Albert Finney’s portrayal in director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of the novel but the more ubiquitous Poirot of David Suchet in the long-running, hit TV series, the benchmark most cinemagoers will have in the back of their minds.
Against all odds, an awkwardly slow beginning and a ludicrous novelty draft excluder above his lip, he manages to pull it off (not the moustache, unfortunately, by any definition of the phrase). His is a Poirot with steely dramatic chops, not least during the brilliantly staged dénouement and its attendant moral conundrum.
Characterisations aside, this is a gloriously sumptuous visual feast, with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos serving up a real chocolate box of a movie unencumbered by too many soft centres. Whether it’s the claustrophobia of the well-appointed bunks and buffet cars or the splendour of the snowbound exteriors, the surroundings are as integral to the narrative drive as any of the would-be assassins.
There’s no shortage of source material should the public take this retelling to their hearts and demand a return ticket. Screenwriter Michael Green adds a cheeky aside in the closing minutes that is likely to elicit good-hearted groans and excitable cheers in equal measure, while suggesting that this could be just the start of a lucrative franchise.
Requisite components are already in place, and Branagh has left a deep enough footprint on affairs to be called back for several further bouts of sleuthing. It might be an idea for Poirot to get the clippers out before the next film, though.
Murder on the Orient Express is released in cinemas on Friday 3 November