A new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” steamed into theaters behind the hashtag #MustacheMeAnything, which was indubitably Agatha Christie’s working title while she wrote her celebrated Hercule Poirot whodunit. Her book is rightly famous and, if such a thing can be said about a classical murder mystery, still controversial within its genre.
The 2017 edition follows several television movie versions and the 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation starring the likes of Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery — the story of death on the rails with a train full of suspects requires a certain wattage of all-star cast.
The lights are somewhat dimmer in Kenneth Branagh’s latest — one tries to think of a more apt metaphor for the decline of the cinematic arts than the fact that a role once filled by Anthony Perkins is now given to Josh Gad, but the mind boggles. When Branagh’s Poirot boards the Orient Express and is compelled to bunk with Gad’s sulky secretary MacQueen, he delivers the best line in the film, “I am equally disappointed in you.”
When the train pulls out of Istanbul for points far west, Poirot simply wants to read Dickens and relax. In the dining car, however, he meets the villain of the piece, Ratchett (a rather worse for wear Johnny Depp). Poirot, a very neat man indeed, is most disturbed by the asymmetry of Ratchett’s face.
And when the scarred wannabe Scarface fails to rise the next morning thanks to an overabundance of stab wounds to his torso, none of the passengers appear heartbroken. A duke’s mixture of clues is scattered about, everyone could have done it and a providential avalanche stops the Express on its tracks. Poirot must set down his book and learn who took up the knife.
He interviews the downcast Sister Pilar (Penélope Cruz), an Austrian with a wandering accent, Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), and the lap dog clutching imperial, Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench). He interrogates a clandestine couple avoiding anti-miscegenation laws, Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and cadges Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a fur and tweed socialite performing to the back of the house. Showing a fear of repetitiveness, Branagh starts cross cutting between interviews by the time we get to Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Masterman (Derek Jacobi). There is even some Barbital-addled royalty in the back of the train we forget about for most of the film, Count and Countess Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton).
Poirot’s chats reveal he’s stuck with a bunch of surly people, all of whom have connections to the Armstrong family, a lightly-fictionalized version of the Lindberghs. Unfortunately, the film’s writer, John Green — his hands no doubt tired from writing almost every screenplay of 2017, including “Logan,” “Alien: Covenant,” “Blade Runner 2049” and this film — offers little beyond getting across the basics of Christie’s complex mystery.
And the director enjoys his lead actor — himself — too much. We feel precisely how Branagh’s sapphire eyes pierce, the way his no doubt impeccable Belgian inflection sounds just so, and have plenty of time to think about the best metaphor for his formidable soup strainer. This mustache has the silvery resplendence of frozen smoke plumes and the sturdiness of the cowcatcher attached to the steam engine.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 1:54. Visit cinemawest.com.