Offering first class accommodation, stunning views and a fine selection of a la carte thespian talent, Kenneth Branagh’s elegant and stylish remake of Christie’s famous novel is far more than a mere replacement cast service for the lauded 1974 ‘original’.
Exhausted from work and ever so slightly jaded, celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is looking forward to some much needed rest on board the Orient Express. However, he’s barely on the train a matter of hours before he’s approached by shady businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and offered the role of pre-emptive bodyguard. Poirot declines and lo and behold, Ratchett is murdered during the night. With the train marooned by an avalanche, Poirot has little option but to take up the case and identify the murderer from the array of potential suspects.
Branagh’s film makes an instant case for itself visually, with a zippy opening scene establishing – for any of those in the audience who may not have heard of our hero, as unlikely as that may be – Poirot’s bona fides and a lavish attention to period detail so whatever your feelings towards remakes might be, it’s a pleasure to simply look at.
The casting is as precise and exquisite as our detective would have it to. Given the general disdain in which he’s held these days, there’s a thematic and narrative neatness to Depp’s casting as the shady victim at the heart of the Orient Express’ mystery, and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him actually acting for a change rather than mugging his way through a caricature. You can argue about how much of a stretch it may be for him, but there’s no denying he exudes a kind of sleazy wrongness that makes Poirot’s spiritual and physical moustache bristle.
Speaking of which, Branagh’s Poirot’s moustache is a sight to behold. Distractingly convoluted in the trailers, it’s actually luxuriantly impressive in the film itself, a triumph of grooming and design which doesn’t overshadow the abundant charm of Kenneth Branagh’s performance. Having tamed his facial hair into submission by sheer force of charisma, Branagh’s free to essay his take on Christie’s famous detective, retaining all the idiosyncratic oddness of the character (as well as a flawless accent) but playing them as a burden the character feels resigned to bear, albeit with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous sense of fun.
The rest of the stellar cast are, as you’d expect, nothing less than superb – even Josh Gad manages to reign in his usual over exuberance to deliver a nuanced and sinister performance but it’s Michelle Pfeiffer who steals the show, reminding us once again that she is one of the finest screen actresses working today.
The mystery unfolds in a well-crafted way, with the environs of the train carriages never feeling claustrophobic or limiting, although it stumbles slightly at the end where there’s an abrupt end to a baggage car confrontation which segues clumsily into the (Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ referencing) gathering of all the suspects, but it’s a minor leaf on the track of an otherwise excellent journey.
It may not have been strictly necessary, but there’s much to appreciate in this luxurious journey through Christie’s surprisingly dark and archly topical murder mystery.