The biggest mystery concerning Murder on the Orient Express might be why Agatha Christie’s venerable novel lacks a spark in its translation from page to screen.
Indeed, this new big-screen adaptation from director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) features slick visuals and a first-rate ensemble cast, yet falters in the second half, when the central whodunit should be at its most suspenseful.
The film retains the book’s setting in 1934, aboard an intercontinental voyage on a lavish locomotive crowded with well-to-do passengers. One of them is eccentric and elaborately mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh), seeking some rest and relaxation after solving a recent case.
However, the train becomes stranded after an avalanche causes a partial derailment. Then a shady gangster (Johnny Depp) turned up dead overnight in his sleeping quarters, meaning the perpetrator is someone else on board. And it’s up to Poirot to sort everything out.
The multicultural ensemble of potential suspects has some clout, with actors including Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi.
This version lacks some of the breezy, old-fashioned charm of the 1974 adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet and likewise featuring an all-star cast, including Albert Finney as Poirot.
It’s not a remake, but rather a reinterpretation of the source material, with a screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) that makes a few minor tweaks while mostly retaining the throwback vibe — not only to the setting, but also the dialogue and the methodical structure with which the mystery unfolds.
Branagh keeps the train on the tracks from a visual perspective, showcasing some lovely mountain scenery while emphasizing the claustrophobic confines of the exquisitely detailed period railroad cars.
Still, the potential mayhem is fairly subdued in a film that curiously lacks emotional urgency as plot twists are unspooled, red herrings are tossed around, and suspicions are cast in various directions. The most appealing element is Poirot, charismatically portrayed by Branagh, since the other passengers generally aren’t developed much beyond some quirky snobbery — rendering the resolution practically inconsequential.
Such issues might be inherent in translating the material from the get-go, yet as the tension dwindles, Murder on the Orient Express gradually runs out of steam.