1. Murder on the Orient Express wants you to be as proud of it as it is proud of itself. The movie looks like a million bucks, shot on 65 millimeter and packed with all sorts of fashionable, detailed décor with all sorts of stately, safely “unconventional” camera angles (including whole scenes in which we only see the top of characters’ heads) that seem like director Kenneth Branagh is desperately trying to revive all of those old Orson Welles comparisons he got 25 years ago. But the movie is embalmed in its own self-regard. You watch it from behind glass, a museum piece you aren’t allowed to touch. Branagh was trying to make something timeless. But he just made something endless.
2. Branagh casts himself as the famous investigator Hercule Poirot, which is sort of his first problem. Branagh can be a restrained, powerful actor—he might have the best role in Dunkirk—but when he directs himself, he has a tendency to dial up his ham. The meter goes to 11 here; Branagh is winsome and twinkly and getting a rather huge kick out of himself, playing Poirot as an over-the-top, almost cartoonish character, with his wild mustache and silly quirks and a desperate look-at-me insistence that, frankly, is difficult to take throughout. This is a particular problem because Branagh is on screen just about every second of the film, while his massive international cast of actors, almost all of whom are more famous than Kenneth Branagh, basically whiz past the camera and wave before it settles back on Branagh and his thundering mustache. Anytime you want the movie to stop and linger on a particularly compelling story bit or a character, it lands on Branagh again, doing his little dance.
3. The story is … well, it’s Murder on the Orient Express. It has been told so many times that it’s more about the execution than the actual storytelling. Branagh’s decision is to make it so steeped in the past that he gets some sort of “throwback” praise out of it, but rather than breathe life into the enterprise, he sucks all the oxygen out of it. The mystery itself—the gathering of clues, the interviewing of suspects—it all plays as if being looked at through a telescope. It’s fun to look at—the movie pops visually, if not narratively—but it’s airless and joyless. There is no buildup to the mystery, no crumbs for the audience to compile on their own. Branagh ends up denying those who don’t know the story the pleasure of figuring out the mystery themselves, and he denies those who do the experience of seeing the story told in a new way. It’s a movie that burns out at both ends.
4. And hey: If you’re going to remake Murder on the Orient Express, you’re at least gonna wrangle yourself up a great cast, right? Branagh certainly does that, but then he not only gives them precious little screen time, he wraps them up in the same hazy gauze that envelopes the rest of the movie. These are wonderful, charismatic actors who will make you feel very drowsy. Whatever your thoughts about Johnny Depp, the guy at least usually makes an impression on screen; here, he looks like a wax museum version of himself. Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe … I mean, these are some of the most watchable human beings on the planet. But Branagh turns them into elaborately costumed mannequins. The only actor to escape the clutches of the film, the only one to bust through the restraints, is Michelle Pfeiffer, as the grand dame who, like everyone else on the train, has her secrets but is brimming with an almost supernatural rage. Pfeiffer is alive and urgent. Everyone else keeps nodding off.
5. But so much of this really does come back to Branagh. He has shown an ability, as a director, to embrace fun and silly pomposity, from Thor to his many Shakespeare adaptations to even Cinderella. He can also do raging, angry, boiling stage dramas, from Shakespeare to Pinter. But he tries to merge the two here, and the whole thing comes across as painterly and self-aggrandizing, particularly when filtered through Branagh’s performance. You can almost seem him prancing internally in front of the camera, begging you to appreciate how talented and clever he is. Branagh is all of those things; we’ve seen it in other, far better movies. But here, it’s schtick in a vacuum. Branagh wants you to notice him so desperately that you can’t help but tune him, and the rest of his movie, out entirely.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr.
Release Date: November 10, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.