Lavish romp on the Orient Express

AP
Kenneth Branagh's "Murder on the Orient Express " is a visual feast, bursting with movie stars.
AP

Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express “ is a visual feast, bursting with movie stars, glamor and production value so high, you might just exit the theater experiencing some time-warp whiplash. Certainly no studio would make a straightforward, classical whodunit with a budget the size of a modest superhero pic (and no superheroes to speak of) nowadays, you think. What year is this anyway?

But against all odds and logic, here we have, in the waning days of 2017, a perfectly decent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel with the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Branagh himself lighting up the big screen and chewing the decadent scenery like old-fashioned stars.

Branagh plays the lead, Hercule Poirot, a dandy Belgian detective with a gloriously over-the-top mustache who can only see the world as it should be. Imperfections, he says, stand out, whether it’s two soft-boiled eggs that are of different sizes or, you know, the kind of incongruities that make it immediately obvious to him who has committed a crime. This is all laid out quite neatly in a lively opening sequence at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where he theatrically solves a theft in front of a crowd of locals on the verge of rioting.

Chance brings him aboard the Orient Express, which should really have its own credit in the film, where he meets an odd group of strangers — a sultry widow (Pfeiffer), a secretive governess (Daisy Ridley), the doctor whom she pretends to not know (Leslie Odom Jr), a gangster-like art dealer (Depp), his valet (Derek Jacobi) and his bookkeeper (Josh Gad), a princess (Dench) and her maid (Olivia Coleman), a religious zealot (Cruz), a volatile dancer (Sergei Polunin) and his sick wife (Lucy Boynton), a German professor (Willem Dafoe) and a count (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). And then one of them dies — there’s at least a chance someone reading doesn’t yet know who — and everyone remaining becomes a suspect.

Got all that?

Don’t worry. It’s a little overwhelming to keep track of who’s who in this bunch. But it’s still fun enough to see Depp hamming it up with a thick New York accent, Pfeiffer vamping around the train and Branagh careening between giddy parody and self-seriousness as a man who delights in a well-constructed pastry and a good turn-of-phrase from Charles Dickens but can’t seem to comprehend moral ambiguity at all.

Unfortunately, the movie loses its steam right when the intrigue is supposed to be taking over. The discovery process isn’t nearly as fun or engaging as it should be and the film becomes a bit of a slog waiting for the big answer. Branagh certainly steals scenes as Poirot, but the director might have taken more time to ensure all of his characters were given as loving a treatment as his own.


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