Murder on the Orient Express: Branagh right on track with all-star version of the classic whodunit
Murder on the Orient Express (12A) 113 mins - This new Hollywood remake of Agatha Christie's thriller - directed by and starring Sir Ken and released today - is a multi-layered, glossy adaptation in which brains win over brawn, as Geoffrey Macnab discovers
Colonel Mustard committed the murder with lead piping in the conservatory, or Miss Scarlett did it with a candlestick in the ballroom. One of the problems with Agatha Christie screen adaptations is that they can seem as schematic as a game of Cluedo.
There's a detective; there are suspects. Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot solve the mystery just in time for the end credits.
Sir Kenneth Branagh's enjoyable new all-star version of Murder On The Orient Express follows the formula of the traditional Christie whodunit but also tries to add the human factor.
Branagh's performance as the great Belgian detective is far more soulful and melancholy than you might expect. When he is not solving crimes or twirling his huge moustache, his Hercule Poirot is gazing with longing at a photograph of his beloved sweetheart Katherine.
The screenplay doesn't explain who this Katherine is or how he lost her, but his continuing devotion toward her is apparent. Poirot is world weary and overworked.
He wants to "look at paintings" and to have "too much time on his hands", but something is always being stolen and someone is always being killed. He is permanently on call.
At the start of the film, Poirot is by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, trying to work out whether it was the rabbi, the priest or the imam who purloined a priceless artefact. He is a perfectionist who can only see life as it should be and is therefore in a constant state of frustration and disappointment.
If his boiled egg isn't cooked right or someone's tie is askew, it's enough to confirm his despairing view about humanity. He has such a sense of symmetry that if he steps in excrement with one foot, he'll plonk the other one in the mess too for the sake of balance.
Everyone who boards the Orient Express is a suspect - and that is before the murder is even committed. The characters here are all stock types - the gangster, the widow, the missionary, the countess, the maid, etc etc.
The film is set in 1934. Branagh's team of production and costume designers have gone to great lengths to evoke a world of old fashioned glamour in the spirit of Hollywood films of the era. Johnny Depp's shady Edward Ratchett has a sleek leather coat.
Judi Dench's ageing princess dresses in fur. Even a humble governess like Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley on leave from Star Wars) is very glamorously attired.
Luxury is everywhere. Branagh throws in fetishistic close-ups that could come from TV food and drink shows of perfectly baked bread, lovingly mixed cocktails, and succulent puddings.
Poirot, who has to rush across Europe to another case, has been promised "three days free of care, concern and crime" aboard the Orient Express. He is hoping to spend his time reading Charles Dickens's Tale Of Two Cities, but that's before one of the passengers is stabbed to death and he is called on to work out which of the "tangle of strangers" is responsible. Under his forensic gaze, all their little lies and deceptions soon spill into the open.
Early on, the storytelling is on the stolid side. We are introduced to the characters one by one. There is one self-conscious travelling shot in which we see Poirot walking the length of the train in search of his cabin. Every so often, we will see the train from on high as it speeds through valleys and across snowy landscapes.
With such emphasis on pictorial splendour and so much attention to what the travellers wear and how they look, it is hard at first to get any sense of their inner lives. We are told early on that the train is fully booked, but the only passengers we see are the dozen or so in the carriage in which the murder is committed.
Poirot himself is conceited to the point of absurdity, convinced that he is the world's greatest detective and so protective of his moustache that he sleeps with it in special casing.
His fussy Gallic accent (the way he refers to the "killeur!") makes you think of waiters in Monty Python movies serving "waifeur-thin mints" to obese gluttons.
As the journey progresses, so does the complexity of the characterisation. We see beyond the whiskers, fur coats and jewellery. Perhaps drawing on his experiences playing Scandinavian detective Wallander, Branagh probes away at the dark secrets everyone is harbouring.
There are drug addicts, thieves and imposters among the travellers. The glamorous and very flirtatious husband-hunting widow (Michelle Pfeiffer) is far less flighty than she first appears. The reliable doctor (Leslie Odom Jnr) is still traumatised by his wartime experiences. The missionary (Penelope Cruz) has hidden passions. Black and white flashbacks reveal the reasons behind the grief and vengefulness the travellers feel.
The new Orient Express is bound to be compared to the 1974 Sidney Lumet version, which wielded even more star power. Branagh's version is handsomely enough mounted in its own right and offers the old fashioned pleasures you expect from a biggish budget period crime drama.
It also goes further, revealing the heartache and despair that both the detective and his suspects feel. Not that the train is allowed to travel too far into the gloom. There will always be some comic business to leaven matters as Poirot will yet again astound us with his powers of deduction.
"You are one sharp knife, I give you that," the professor (Willem Dafoe) exclaims in admiration as Poirot cuts to the heart of the matter.
This is an attempt to re-customise Agatha Christie for a new generation. If the film works at the box office, the way has been left open for sequels and maybe even a new Poirot franchise. He's not a superhero, but it's a relief to have a film in which, for once, the brains beat the brawn.