Murder On The Orient Express (12A)

“IF it were easy, I wouldn’t be famous,” declares Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, in the actor/director’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famous yarn. While intended as a fun, throwaway expression of the Belgian detective’s vanity, the comment also reflects the challenge faced by the filmmakers. How do you make a well-worn tale fresh and stimulating, when so many viewers already know whodunnit?

Many coming to the film will be familiar with Christie’s cunning solution to the murder of a gangster on a snowbound sleeper train in the Alps. Even for those who don’t, arguably it’s apparent some time before the sleuth himself calls it. All of which means that Branagh must devise something truly special to compensate for familiarity and a lack of crime thriller tension.

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And unfortunately, he doesn’t quite deliver. His train journey is handsomely mounted, for sure, in sumptuous widescreen; the usual dialogue-heavy plotting is accompanied by a sprinkling of action, not quite the Guy Ritchie treatment for Sherlock Holmes, but more than previous Poirots; and Branagh’s detective is a more dashing, more physical version than we’re used to, whose presence – in particular, whose moustache – does take us into new territory.

But it’s rather hard to care about the case. And for a tale whose context is the opulence of the iconic Express, and whose best-known screen version, the 1974 film starring Albert Finny, featured the epitome of the “all-star cast”, this falls short of the requisite class.

A prologue takes place in Jerusalem, in 1934, where Poirot is engaged in the hunt for a stolen relic. Like so many literary detectives, the Belgian does like a captive audience. But here, as he must decide which of a rabbi, a priest and an imam is the guilty culprit, he addresses a crowd of hundreds in front of the Wailing Wall. It’s a preposterous scene, whose grandiosity suggests that Branagh may have imbibed a little of Poirot’s self-importance.

Compensation comes on the smaller scale, as screenwriter Michael Green outlines Poirot’s innate contradiction, the fact that the one quality that makes him a great detective – the need for perfection, balance, the finely honed sense of when something isn’t quite right – is also the cause of his prissiness and makes his life almost unbearable.

Branagh the actor runs with this. On the surface, there is a glint in the eye, an impeccably dapper wardrobe and a beauty of a moustache – moustaches, really, as the effect is of one luxuriant animal laid upon another, a far remove from Finney and David Suchet’s dainty curlicues. Beneath, a melancholy and loneliness, and the sense of a man never free from the constant demands on his talent.

This is the chap who alights the Orient Express in Istanbul, en route for a new assignment in London, though he becomes more immediately occupied with the brutal death of a fellow passenger, the gangster Ratchet (an appropriately venal Johnny Depp). As an avalanche strands the train, Poirot goes to town.

It’s in these interactions, between Poirot and the stock types reluctantly lined up for interview – the haughty countess, the missionary, the professor, the governess, the dead man’s butler – that adaptations invariably stand or fall. Branagh is excellent in these scenes. However, Finney’s suspects included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins and Vanessa Redgrave; this has some decent actors, but only Judi Dench and Michelle Pfeiffer bring starry sparkle to the table.

Far too often it feels like a one-man show. And the direction and writing, while straining for import, don’t do enough to intrigue, tickle or delight.