Murder on the Orient Express is a curious film. Back in the day, theaters were littered with movies based on Agatha Christie murder mysteries and other big cast whodunits. They—along with their cinematic cousins, the disaster flicks—tended to be populated with B-list actors, or aging A-listers. They were such a cinematic mainstay that they were routinely sent up, in films like Clue and Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe and Murder By Death. More recently, the late Robert Altman did a near perfect homage to the genre, Gosford Park. And, of course, over on the BBC, Benedict Cumberbatch has taken up the tweed cape and pipe as Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant detective who is the spiritual cousin of Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
So what really is the point of remaking Murder on the Orient Express? It’s not as if Sidney Lumet didn’t do a perfectly respectable version in 1974 with no less than Albert Finney as Poirot.
There could only be a few compelling reasons to remake it: One is if you have a thrilling new take on the material. This film, while certainly engaging, handsomely mounted, and well acted, does not. The other is if you have an irresistibly brilliant actor playing Poirot. Now here’s where things get sticky.
Murder on the Orient Express is a true ensemble film. Among the passengers on the luxury train heading from Istanbul to London, all of whom are suspects when a murder takes place, there is no one particular star, although each character is given his or her moment to shine. This makes it all the more surprising that the cast is uncommonly A-list—Johnny Depp, Dame Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe.
Nope, Murder on the Orient Express only has one true star, the character who dominates the film, who appears in virtually every frame, and that is the detective Poirot, who happens to be played by the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh.
Look, I’m not going to go as far as to say this is a vanity film—oh, heck that’s exactly what I’m saying. Is Branagh the best man to play Poirot? I would’ve loved to have seen Ralph Fiennes tackle the character. But he’s certainly very good as the genius detective who values balance and order above all else and therefore is keenly aware of every clue, every hair out of place, every tiny inconsistency; a man who is so obsessive he sleeps with a mustache guard (and a fine, fine mustache it is). Is his performance good enough to relaunch Branagh’s own somewhat stagnant acting career? Only time will tell. If we do end up with a Branaghssiance, he’ll have to thank his director, Kenneth Branagh.