Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has been filmed before several times, yet this enjoyably grandiose and all-star-cast adaptation, as directed by Kenneth Branagh, is very much a remake of the also-all-star-cast 1974 version.
Here Branagh takes on the role later almost parodied by Peter Ustinov and played with more sincerity by David Suchet on TV. In the spirit of Benedict Cumberbatch’s impossibly arrogant Sherlock, this Poirot is a pompous, obsessive-compulsive who just happens to be around when a baffling murder takes place on the FX train route of the title. He also sports one of the most wonderfully ludicrous walrus mustaches in cinema history.
Back in 1934 (of course) Branagh’s Poirot is seen solving a case in Jerusalem, escaping to enthuse over pastries in Istanbul, and then being shipped off to London for more deductions by way of, at first, the Orient Express, which is seen roaring through FX snowy countryside in camera swoops which can only be achieved by computers. Poirot naturally meets a formidable gaggle of characters on board, all with hidden secrets and private neuroses, and they’re played by a mob of A-listers and beloved thespians.
They notably include: grumpy Princess Dragomiroff (Branagh’s old pal Judi Dench) and her companion Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); glamourous Yank Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); God-botherer Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz); aspiring Nazi Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); pinched butler Edward Henry Masterman (Branagh’s other old chum Derek Jacobi in the role played by John Gielgud in 1974); secret lovers Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley from the new Star Wars outings) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr. as the odd man out in more ways than one); and Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad, still best-known as the voice of Olaf the snowman in Disney’s Frozen), boozy assistant to the shady Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, reining in the goofiness for this director).
When the train derails in an avalanche and Ratchett winds up murdered, it’s up to Poirot to sniff out the culprit, and Branagh and his screenwriter Michael Green change a few of the original story details (and the 1974 film) noticeably, adding well-intentioned themes about racism and intolerance that still rather stick out. He also coaxes some fine work from his glittering ensemble, despite the potential for ham, with strong work from Pfeiffer (continuing her comeback), Dafoe, Gad, the dashing Depp and Ridley, whom you might not recognise without a lightsaber in her hands.
Brannagh obviously had great fun here and (spoilers, if you want them) it’s highly likely that his Poirot will be featuring in another whole run of glossy Christie filmings, with new, again-all-star casts perhaps signing on right now for fresh versions of Death On The Nile, Evil Under The Sun and so forth. As, no doubt, his mustache grows ever bigger and bushier.
Rated M. Murder on the Orient Express is in cinemas now.