Agatha Christie spent her career playing games that her audience were designed to lose. After all, while a good twist presents readers with all the clues – albeit cryptically – Christie actively withheld information from those patient enough to slog through her spasmodic and overstuffed novels. Her denouements were full of seemingly dead bodies re-animating themselves; culprits multiplying; the rules of the game suddenly and unfairly shifting.
Murder On The Orient Express, though arguably Christie’s famous work, is no different. Remember that much derided poster that came out a few months ago to promote The Snowman? Remember its laughable tagline: “Mr Police, I gave you all the clues”? Well, the tagline for Orient Express, both the original novel and the new Kenneth Branagh-helmed adaptation, could easily be, “Mr Police, I gave you precisely zero of the clues”. And although Branagh and his team do an admirable job, they are ultimately engaged in the business of slapping a new coat of paint onto a bear trap; one custom-built to swallow unsuspecting audience members’ legs whole.
The potential suspects are many; the clues are myriad; and time is running out.
The plot is bare bones simple: world-renowned and moustachioed detective Hercules Poiroit (Branagh, having a lot of fun), eager to take a much-needed holiday, finds himself instead embroiled in the murder of a gangster (Johnny Depp, all scar tissue and elasticated gurning) while trapped on a snowbound orient express. The potential suspects are many; the clues are myriad; and time is running out.
So, yeah, as that plot description probably indicates, Orient Express manages to be somehow totally predictable, and emphatically, infuriatingly unpredictable; it’s cliched and hammy until all of a sudden it’s not at all.
But at least the proceedings are – if deeply irritating – reasonably entertaining. Branagh is an underrated director (his 1996 film version of Hamlet remains not only one of the best Shakespeare adaptation to date, but one of the most singularly impressive films of the ’90s) and he keeps things clipping on at an agreeable pace. Those familiar with his back catalogue might be used to his tricks – splicing in black and white footage into scenes otherwise shot in colour; long, expressionistic wide shots; canted angles – but that doesn’t take away one dot from their effectiveness. And while he does throw a little too much at the screen, hoping anything and everything will stick, his excess is rather the point.
Best of all, he never takes himself or his subject matter too seriously. Branagh’s Poirot is, while occasionally moribund and lovesick, mostly a zany cross between Inspector Clouseau and a straight-edge Raoul Duke, if such a thing can be imagined. He snaps, and shuffles, and does a great deal of acting through his impressive moustache, his sometimes wobbly accent very much part of the fun.
It’s a shame the rest of the cast don’t quite give as much. A litany of decorated players make an appearance (Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and more all show up), and although the seemingly endless list of cameos is kinda amusing at first – it gives the proceedings the feeling of a variety Christmas TV special – it does all rather wear thin. Moreover, no-one seems quite as willing to skirt with the parodic as Branagh does: Ridley in particular trembles and titters her way towards the point of total caricature without ever reaching it.
Nonetheless, the real glaring flaws are down to Christie, not Branagh, with the wobbly finale (complete with shoehorned in sequel teasing) eliciting vocal groans from the screening this critic attended. Oh well. Maybe that fits with the classic road movie formula: the destination might be a disappointment, but at least we had some fun on the way?
Murder On The Orient Express is in cinemas this Thursday November 9.
For more Brag movie reviews, check out our thoughts on the new Saw film, Jigsaw.