THERE’S a fine, surprisingly understated line between that which is retro and that which is dated, and I can’t help but feel
that this Agatha Christie adaptation, despite its moments of glory, is firmly in the same camp as Windows 95, Keith
Chegwin and It Ain’t Half-Hot Mum. Sure, it might not be as toe-curlingly awkward as any of those (especially the last two), but Kenneth Branagh’s take on THE quintessential British classic makes for a plodding, exasperating watch, admirable for
its family-friendly aspirations (there’s very little in the way of blood and guts) but frustratingly rigid and lacklustre by any modern standard. And that’s despite it packing a prime contender for Cast of the Year (more on that in a moment…).
Given the film’s (uniquely) polarised reception, I think I’m going to have make a special effort to justify myself here. Branagh has no doubt set out with a wistful, burlesque eye – I’m not even sure one can approach the Christie potboiler backlog in any other way – yet those satirical designs, as they so often do nowadays, appear to have done an about-turn and bit him right on the left-buttock. This is the 19th century as envisaged by the 23-year-old cashier at a Soho hipster emporium, where barbital addicts cross paths with European royalty and outlandishly-moustached butlers aboard luxurious, inexplicably empty carriages. This could so easily have been a high-camp rip-ride, but there’s something profoundly lifeless about the vision – were it not for ONE THING, this could easily be the sort of monotonous, obscure ’80s TV movie you watch (and promptly forget) over the festive season, replete with long, unnecessary stretches where very little happens.
That ‘one thing’ being, of course, the all-star Euro-American line-up Branagh has somehow cobbled together; frankly, it’s impossible to see this script as having originated as anything other than a boozy joke at a Hollywood shindig spun wildly out of control. As the film drags on, we find ourselves bedevilled by a mystery quite a bit more tantalising than that which the great Hercule Poirot (Branagh, of course) finds himself confronted with aboard the titular locomotive – that is, the mystery of how all these people ended up here. Is that Penelope Cruz playing an ardent missionary? Doesn’t Dame Judi Dench (she’s a snooty Russian aristocrat) have better things to do? Has the career of Johnny Depp (he’s got a brief, albeit significant part as a bent art dealer) really sunk to such lows that he now feels compelled to feature in a Christie adaptation? And what’s Daisy Ridley (the best thing in here, playing an oh-so-polite governess) doing with these oldsters, anyhow?
The 114-minute runtime more than affords the movie an opportunity to explore these characters, for Poirot to turn their screws and get under their skin; yet, having got the titular murder off its hands, the whole thing suddenly derails. The characters, like figurines in some grotesque live-action Cluedo (oh, wait, they already did that), aren’t personalities to be developed and interrogated so much as they are colourful archetypes, devoid of substance and nuance. This might’ve worked as something more straightforwardly tongue-in-cheek, but Murder on the Orient Express is in a peculiar league of its own, somewhere between self-conscious parody, spiffing whodunnit and aspirant awards contender. With a host of celebrity walk-ons there to keep you from slumber (and some of the performances are, admittedly, entertaining), it’s bearable, but it doesn’t exactly add up.