When starring in the films he also wrote and directed, there was an unsaid understanding that the inarguably talented dramatist was aware of his skillset and was unafraid of announcing to the world that he was, in fact, the shit.
For the 35 years Branagh’s been in the public eye, most have rendered him as something of a modern-day Olivier. He too has made a living by making Shakespearean tragedies temporarily cool again, and he too has a developed an onscreen and offscreen persona shaded in an underlying love for himself.
Yet as the decades have passed, Branagh’s increasingly become a director for hire who just sometimes stars in his own movies. He hasn’t produced a full-on vanity project since 2000’s Love Labour’s Lost, and his most recent films have included blockbusting fare like 2010’s Thor, 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and 2015’s Cinderella. It’s been eons since he’s pulled a total Olivier.
So consider this year’s Murder on the Orient Express, which is the second feature film based upon the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, the closest he’ll come to such an endeavor for the next few years. Though it does not find its source in a Shakespeare piece and though Branagh does not serve as the screenwriter (Michael Green takes over those responsibilities), he both stars in and directs the film with the sort of self-important brass to be found in the movies which made him famous, like Henry V (1989) or Much Ado About Nothing (1993).
Because Murder on the Orient Express is ultimately more about showcasing Branagh than it is about anything else, though, it lacks the fun of both the original novel and the predeceasing 1974 film adaptation.
The novel, in the tradition of all of Christie’s books, was a glitzy whodunit, a murder mystery featuring a glamorous ensemble of suspects dishing dialogue so glib and living through plot twists so scandalous we felt inclined to put on silk pajamas and devour bonbons with chilled champagne while reading.
The earlier movie, directed by Sidney Lumet, mimicked the glimmering atmosphere of classic Hollywood all the while keeping Christie’s sense of lightheartedness intact. It also kept the novel’s leading character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, cartoonish. (This was a good thing, considering his various physical and emotional exaggerations.)
Much remains the same in the 2017 adaptation, yet so much fails to pack the same punch. It is still set in 1934, still watches as the clever Poirot solves a murder aboard the Orient Express (which is trapped by an avalanche midway through the feature), still puts a spotlight on well-dressed suspects who have their moment to performatively shine, and still has the killer reveal which continues to be among the great plot twists in entertainment.
But Green’s screenplay, as well as Branagh’s direction and leading performance, saps the joys from the works on which it’s based. It’s too Poirot-centric: he’s at the nucleus of most of the drama when he should act as the foundation. It’s stylish but clinically so, like a Vogue spread headed by a Gatsby-inspired Mario Testino when it should sink its manicured fangs more deeply into the materialistic delights. It doesn’t so much exploit the muscular talents of the actors involved as much as it simply points out that it was expensive to get them together. (It impressively has persuaded Penélope Cruz, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Olivia Colman, Johnny Depp, and more, to star.)
It’s too serious, with Christie’s thinly veiled satirization of the bourgeoisie and her impenetrably witty dialogue minimized. And Poirot’s no fun here, either, suddenly sexy and humanized when he should remain the asexual, obese Mr. Peanut with a French accent and a frustratingly enigmatic air.
So we should consider it a bad sign that the visuals often thrill more than the movie itself. (Though even after a while the ocular highs provided by Branagh’s artificially enhanced blue eyes, the glow of silk against soft lighting, the shiny waves of the ensemble’s ‘dos, and the period perfection of the attire wears thin.)
On an ordinary day, it might be fine for Branagh to get a kick out of himself. He’s a major talent who knows quite a bit more about the implanting of theatrical virtues into the cinema than most. If he has to place himself in the middle of the action in order to promise success, so be it.
But when it comes to something as ensemble-dependent as Murder on the Orient Express, he’s all wrong as the star and the director. It becomes too much about Branagh. And when you have a cast this first rate, a one-sided spotlighting is ill-advised. Especially when Pfeiffer, in the middle of a Michellaissance, is this good. C+
Leslie Odom, Jr.
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
Murder on the Orient Express December 1, 2017
hen Kenneth Branagh was cast as the artiste Laurence Olivier in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn (2011), which detailed the making of the Olivier passion project The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the selection seemed a touch meta. For most of the Hollywood Golden Age, Olivier, like the iconoclastic filmmaker Orson Welles, was as interested in bringing Shakespeare to the masses as he was in feeding his ego.
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.