Director Kenneth Branagh wishes for the audience to be able to smell the steam billowing from the train in his rejuvenation of the classic Agatha Christie novel; rather, the smell of patrons’ popcorn wafting faintly through the aisles will be enough to distract most from this tiresome tirade.
Hercule Poirot (Branagh) might just be the greatest detective in the world, a fact that he reminds audiences not by his actions, but through vocal repetition. After an introductory scene in which our protagonist solves a case in Istanbul, yet another case comes to his attention. Poirot hops aboard the Orient Express, and amongst a myriad of strangers, comes forth Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who expresses pressing paranoia concerning his safety. Dismissing the overt criminals plea results in his inevitable murder, creating a case for the famed detective to crack before he departs the train.
This is the fourth adaptation of its widely-known source material, so it is logistically puzzling as to the reason why this latest incarnation exists – there is little need for another re-telling. However, there are many other properties of which the same can be said. It is just the Hollywood way. What this outing is able to boast, is a stellar cast; admittedly, a cast with very little to work with besides the camp eccentricity of Poirot’s moustache. Branagh’s portrayal is an example of trying to make a character compelling through striking appearance, but one with little of interest to say. The script is staggeringly poor, so any degree of interest in the narrative is stumped by the occasional spitting of accessible observation. The director/star’s love of the character is evident, but this peaked interest in a renowned literary character simply isn’t enough to entice audiences for its bloated run-time.
Besides Poirot, there are arguably no notable characters apart from Depp’s brief caricatured take on the criminal template, which is baffling when one thinks of the star power the film possesses. Amongst the cast are Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Penelope Cruz (All About My Mother), Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) Judi Dench (Philomena), and Willem Dafoe (Antichrist), just to name a few. These prominent performers all prove unsatisfying, not because of their inability, but because they appear to have been thrown a lifeless and tonally inconsistent script. It is as if they have merely all been pushed onto screen – not sharing it. There may have been the misbelief that with enough talent you can create magic, which is simply not the case. Surprisingly, Josh Gad is the only member of a supporting cast that manages to leave any impression. These are archetypal and flat characters spouting generic quips; nothing intelligent here, except maybe Poirot, and even this detective’s lines sometimes help argue the opposite.
The cinematography sometimes offers something pleasing to look at, but these shots are mostly lost between a preoccupation with the case – understandable of a detective film, perhaps not so understandable that the case is unconvincingly and shoddily spun. Brief action sequences feel so out of place, and the last acts revelations feel unbecoming and exhausted by the time they roll to a close. The tension of its conclusion relies on the fact that those involved in production have achieved to materialise an invested interest on behalf of the audience. But, due to its failure to do just that, it becomes a last act that limps hesitantly towards a finish line; of which the reward offered is to be able to leave the theater.