“Can we please stop with the remakes of Murder on the Orient Express?” I ask upon exiting Kenneth Branagh’s fatally tepid new reading of the Agatha Christie classic.
For my money, David Suchet already nailed the most satisfying Hercule Poirot we’re ever likely to know. In the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (which aired on PBS in the States), if not the wholly unnecessary 2010 movie, Suchet’s Belgian detective came to us as his own complicated loner — sly, prissy, compulsive, sexually ambiguous and with a thoroughly earned tragic vision of humankind, yet full of compassion for its individual membership. When Suchet’s Poirot insisted he was happiest when alone, we believed him. But coming from Branagh’s Poirot, there is room for doubt — and not only because his lips can barely move beneath a mustache so humongous it curls around corners, possibly in an attempt at a getaway.
That hairy party favor — with Branagh behind it, incessantly cracking wise and foolish — leads the action. We meet Poirot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a scenic locale that may or may not connect to later events. For now it’s an excuse for the smirky private eye to launch into a lame gag about rabbis, imams and priests.
Then it’s on to Istanbul, where the self-professed “greatest detective in the world” boards the famously deluxe locomotive for a hard-earned break among bejeweled toffs moping about in richly varnished wooden carriages with to-die-for light fixtures.
The mustache wears a coat in bed, where we dally with Poirot until Johnny Depp shows up as an iffy-looking “businessman” who, after trying in vain to hire the sleuth as his bodyguard, turns up dead on schedule.
In deference to the six people on this planet who don’t know that his multiple stab wounds weren’t inflicted by the butler, in the library, with a poker, I must keep heroically mum about whodunit. Truthfully it’s hard to work up a head of suspense about the killer because once the train screeches to a halt on a box girder bridge, it’s all tedious talk by name actors looking shifty or inscrutable or insisting against all odds that they’re the guilty party.
When Agatha Christie maneuvered a large crowd of potential perps into a confined space, she was not just plot-thickening, but finding a way to explore human character in all its rainbow of delusion, rationalization and displaced guilt. For Branagh, it’s little more than a golden opportunity to make us “ooh” and “aah” over a clutch of majorly attired big Hollywood guns from Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz, plus a strategic sprinkling of young ‘uns and a weak stab at diverse casting.
The slight twist that Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have placed on this crew’s shared tie to the deceased doesn’t compel, because they generate no interest as characters. They’re movie stars draped in tableaux, and we are left following them through the carriages in showy aerial shots and tracking shots, or gazing at the expensive furs and the splendid snow-covered mountains.
After a stream of gags about how Poirot likes his oeufs cooked, we transition to unearned poignancy as the movie lumbers home to a denouement — one that, in all fairness to the filmmakers, was never one of Christie’s finest and that has going for it only a ham-fisted democratic impulse. Violins soar amid snow-covered mountains. Poirot stops his quipping and gazes mournfully into the middle distance for a bit. A very short bit.
Poirot follows this brief lunge into gravitas with a cheery wink and a nod that having sorted this lot out, he is off to try his luck on the Nile, nudge nudge. Peeps of Hollywood, I beg you, pitch that pitch straight into turnaround.