‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Takes Viewers on a Dull Journey

  • Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley in “Murder on the Orient Express.” MUST CREDIT: Nicola Dove, Twentieth Century Fox

The Washington Post
Friday, November 10, 2017

There’s a nagging mystery at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express, and it has nothing to do with homicide. It’s all about a mustache, the one on the face of renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, played by Kenneth Branagh. Hair hasn’t inspired this much curiosity since Donald Trump’s comb-over first met a stiff breeze.

Most people may already be acquainted with the plot (not to mention the culprit) of Agatha Christie’s novel, which was already famously adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974. That means Branagh, who also directed, has a tall order, making a familiar tale worth revisiting. The story, scripted by Michael Green, takes place in 1934 and follows Poirot as he investigates a murder on a train marooned by an avalanche.

The victim, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, playing it relatively straight for once), was a shady art dealer with plenty of enemies, so not even his associates seem surprised when he winds up stabbed to death. But the guilty party is almost certainly still on the train, which leaves about a dozen possible suspects.

The trick with such a sprawling cast is for the characters to efficiently make individual impressions. That works with some — especially Josh Gad’s sneaky Hector MacQueen and a flirtatious widow played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Mostly, though, the big-name cast is wasted, leaving Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman and Penélope Cruz with little to do. They fade into the background behind Poirot, who doesn’t shy away from reminding his fellow passengers that he’s the greatest detective alive.

Those bombastic pronouncements are quite funny, and early on, Murder excels at delivering laughs. For a moment, the movie seems to be going for a daffy vibe, in the vein of Clue. But the story settles into a somewhat lethargic procedural as Poirot takes turns interviewing so many one-dimensional characters, eventually uncovering one shocking twist after another.

Murder may lack urgency, but it does have style. The sets, the costumes and the vistas are stunning. And cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos gets inventive filming inside cramped quarters, occasionally capturing the action from overhead or documenting a scene from outside the train.

But like Poirot’s mustache, these flourishes don’t pull viewers deeper into the story so much as make them step back for a moment of appreciation. Things have gone too far when a murder mystery plays second fiddle to a personal-grooming puzzle.

Murder on the Orient Expressis rated PG-13. Contains violence. 114 minutes.