Kenneth Branagh can do Shakespeare, but he certainly can’t do Agatha Christie. In his treatment of a theatrical production of her classic Poirot novel, he seems to favor more of the text than the characters, under the impression that the plot is stirring enough to hold a film of overly shady characters and a dry atmosphere. Branagh’s approach makes the decadent cinematography, and a stellar cast feel vastly underused in a script that could use something to wake it from the doldrums of a somber and sleepy production.
The detective of Hercule Poirot is played by Branagh himself with unusual weariness, playing up the character’s traits stiffly as though he were in the third week of a stage production. Committed more to dialogue than actions, Poirot spends more
time talking about himself than letting the audience deduct his character. He has an obsession with perfection that he confesses makes it difficult for him to live in a word of imperfections. There’s excellent use of this in his preference for breakfast and stepping through manure, but rarely do these frustration come about in the mystery at hand. His additional traits for the lost love of a woman and his current love for the works of Charles Dickens do little for this case as well.
Before the central train mystery begins, there’s an early case that signals a bad omen for this film. Poirot makes his grand reveal of who a thief is with a grand audience, but we’re stuck in the back watching him solve the case from the worst seats for the event. He reveals the clues calmly and coldly for what should be an invigorating mystery. And his foreshadowing for the culprit’s escape route comes off as amateurish and silly, somehow predicting that the escaping guilty party would somehow dash off at the precise angle to run into his cane lodged in a wall. This kind of direction suggests that things in this story will just happen less by the insightful buildup and more based on convenient occurrence.
Poirot is hoping for some rest and reading on the Orient Express, but no such luck. He’s approached by the questionable character of Ratchett (Johnny Depp), seeking protection from some wicked men coming for him. Poirot refuses as he’s not interested in dealing with criminals. He’ll have to, however, when Ratchett turns up dead in the morning with multiple stab wounds. Who could have committed such an act? It could be anyone on the train, considering we don’t learn much about them before the action. We know individual personalities and specific facts, but not much else. The suspects are discovered as Poirot interviews them, but the strict running time only allows for about one or two meetings each.
This is a shame considering the fantastic ensemble cast. We have Willem Dafoe as a deceptive German, Judi Dench as a snobby elite and Josh Gad as a nervous fellow. But they don’t have much to do and exclude little personality, refining themselves as if they were in more of a stuffy melodrama than one of the grandest mysteries of all time. This is most evident in the scenes where Branagh holds on his subjects for far too long, better showcasing how well the actors memorized their lines in one shot as opposed to exuding some level charisma. Everyone plays their role so straight and free of eccentricity or charm that their small bursts of emotion come off as little surprises akin to a firecracker going off in a rainstorm.
The film isn’t without its beauty. I love the way Branagh sets up certain shots, playing considerably with how to stage the train. When the suspects all sit in the restaurant car, we see them behind the prisms of the glass windows. When Ratchett’s body is first discovered, it is shot entirely from above, the camera aiming directly on top of all the actors and the train. Even the climactic solving of the case, weirdly staged as it is, present an unforgettable sequence with Poirot behind the glow of the train and all the suspects sitting in a row inside a tunnel as though it were the Last Supper.