Aboard a luxurious train stuffed with mysterious strangers, a man in brutally slain in his bed. Yet the greatest crime in Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is the one committed against cinema. This adaptation of Agatha Christie's classic novel is positively bursting with charismatic stars, boasting not only Branagh in its lead as the eccentric detective Hercule Poirot, but also the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi and acclaimed Broadway stunner Leslie Odom Jr. Yet this is a lethally dull and ugly movie that possesses all the suspense of a damp hand towel.
Murder on the Orient Express follows Christie's meticulously mustachioed sleuth (Branagh) on a treacherous journey. When an avalanche derails the titular train, the posh passengers discover that one of their number has been murdered. While they await rescue, Poirot puts his brilliant mind to work on a murder mystery crowded with conflicting clues. Could it be the sly governess (Ridley)? The sneering professor (Dafoe)? The husband-seeking socialite (Pfeiffer)? And so and so on and so on.
To his credit, Branagh clearly relishes every moment of playing Poirot, whether he's staring down a lying suspect or giddily giggling while reading Charles Dickens. But it seems Branagh was so enamored with his own performance that he let every other aspect of the film fall flat.
The script by Michael Green (Logan, Alien: Covenant) trots along at the pace of a dead horse. Before we even get aboard the Express, first must come not one but two scenes where characters declare Poirot a genius of deduction. There's also flagrantly useless and incoherent action sequence and a bizarrely long beat where Poirot steps in animal feces, once then again. When we finally get on board the train, exposition drops in sloppy wallops, leaving audiences dizzy on character names and glancing alibis. It's a bullying barrage of clues that makes Murder on the Orient Express more trying than entertaining. But even this could have been saved by a cast this full of glamor and bravado!
Alas. Branagh repeatedly cuts his cast members off at the knees. Or more accurately, he cuts them out of the frame. Utterly confounding cinematography leaves the performers faces all too often absent from the screen. At her introduction, Pfeiffer's elegant Ms. Hubbard strides to keep pace with Poirot as he makes his way to his cabin. However, shot from outside the train in a tracking shot, the stars are seen only in spurts as the screen is overrun with the wide stripes of the bright blue paneling between the car's windows. While some filmmakers (Wes Anderson, Bong Joon-Ho) have made an art out of shooting on trains, Branagh has made a mess of it. Later, when the corpse is discovered, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos offers an aerial shot, leaving the reactions of Branagh and his cast completely out of frame, favoring instead their indifferent shoulders and scalps. This frustrating framing goes on for so long that not only does it crudely telegraph a later clue, but it almost feels like a defiant joke at the audience's expense. You paid to see this! Ha ha!
When the cast actually does score a close-up, Branagh fails many in lighting. Well, mostly the women. The men are allowed visual character. Their faces are streaked with mustaches and scars, and even shadows. When Johnny Depp (who is in this movie, and that's the most I can say to his credit) faces off against a fearsome Pfieffer, his countenance has a sense of depth and threat thanks to a stripe of blue lighting and a splash of ominous shadow. Meanwhile, Pfieffer is overlit to the point where her makeup is washed out along with her features, making her expression unclear and her face almost unrecognizable. Later, as Daisy Ridley appears opposite Branagh, she's overexposed to the point where the girl barely has a nose! But don't doubt that every hair of Poirot's big, ludicrous mustache is in focus and lovingly lit.
Further marring this slovenly cinematic abomination, the CG environments that surround the train are so flat and glaringly false that it seems like its passengers are traveling through a gallery of desktop backdrops circa 1997. And all the while, this atrocity of bad lighting, worse CGI, and infuriating camera moves is writ large across a 70mm aspect ratio! This is the format that gave scope and drama to films like Lawrence of Arabia, West Side Story and The Hateful Eight. Here, it is utterly, absolutely wasted on a profoundly ugly film, only grand in its self-importance. But the greatest waste in Murder on the Orient Express is its remarkable but woefully underused cast, who are each given little more than a glorified cameo.
With so many characters, every member of this ensemble (aside from Branagh) is left with scraps. Props to Tom Bateman who blazes onto the screen as Poirot's rambunctious playboy pal, Bouc. For a few minutes, he brings a welcomed zest to this bumbling mess of a mystery. But all too soon, he is sadly sidelined to only awe over all Poirot's musings. Still, he fares better than the rest.
Brief flashes of fascination are all this deeply flawed adaption allows. There's no grace to this whirling dance of suspects. They clunk into the story, share a plaintive cry, a snarled secret, or a silly one-liner, and then they vanish just long enough for you to forget they existed in the first place. Finally at long last, the mystery will unravel, but in a staging so haphazard it feels as if Branagh has become as bored with his film as we are watching it. Here, dumped on a long table are all the answers and hard truths. And still the movie does not have the decency to end, dragging us through a ruthlessly ragged resolution.
It's by no means shocking that Branagh has made his Christie adaptation into a vanity project. That's kind of his thing. But in the past he has been able to satiate his ravenous ego while also giving audiences sumptuous spectacle in adaptations like Hamlet, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Much Ado About Nothing. From Thor to Cinderella, Branagh has become a go-to helmer for grandiose and inventive adaptations lush with theatricality and cinematic wonder. So it's beyond astonishing that his Murder on the Orient Express is this jarringly ugly, this woefully inept, this magnificently unsatisfying. But here we are. With a sensational ensemble, beloved source material, and a studio backing at his disposal, Branagh has managed to make one of the very worst films of the year.
Murder on the Orient Express opens Friday.