Calling something old fashioned sometimes can be deemed an insult when describing music, movies or any kind of art that doesn’t break any new ground, but instead merely tells a simple story well. When describing Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, however, it should definitely be taken as a compliment.
Christie’s 1934 novel has been so widely read and Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film adaptation is so beloved that it’s easy to criticize this remake as something that probably didn’t need to even be made. As great as the last film is and as iconic as the story has become over the years, Branagh’s remake was caught in an unenviable position: if it was too different, the film would be accused of disrespecting the source material and if it was too similar it would be called a pointless vanity project. The film could be slammed no matter what and had nothing to gain either way.
The story follows what is arguably Christie’s most famous invention, the brilliant Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh himself), as he attempts to unwind after solving a particularly difficult case. His berth on the Orient Express was a last-minute decision as he figures it might be the quickest way to get him back to London so he can begin a well-earned vacation.
The train is filled with a motley crew of individuals who seem to be complicated enough to be the central characters in their own story, let alone side characters in someone else’s. There’s a severe nun, a drunk banker, two angry servants, a cruel princess, a racist doctor, a ravenous widower, a few pairs of doomed couples and an American gangster. When one of them turns up dead, Poirot must cut his vacation short to put the disparate pieces of the puzzle together and find the murderer.
Branagh fills the cramped confines of the Orient Express with a remarkable cast featuring Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leslie Odom Jr. and several others. As uniformly excellent as the supporting cast is, none of them have the heavy lifting Branagh does as Poirot, in a performance I expected to find a little self-indulgent, but instead thought was completely lovely.
Branagh doesn’t try and match the coolness of Albert Finney’s portrayal of Poirot, Peter Ustinov’s wit or even the warmth of David Suchet, who played the role for over two decades. Instead, Branagh brings a haunted look to the bright blue eyes of the master detective. Poirot is wounded and, even as he tamps down any excess emotion with his obsession for order and delight at being left alone, we can see that his uncanny ability to detect crime is also a defense mechanism to help him avoid self-examination.
This Poirot isn’t a debonair action hero like Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock or a high-functioning sociopath like Benedict Cumberbatch in the series Sherlock. Branagh doesn’t try to make him cooler or more modern. He’s just an old-fashioned detective who solves crimes with his nerdy powers of deduction instead of fists or a gun. He’s entirely old fashioned — and perfect just the way he is.