Glamorous passengers are stuck on a train while a murderer is on the loose – it’s a jolly good job the detective Hercule Poirot (director Kenneth Branagh) is among them. As they board the train in their finery, it’s pleasantly easy to get distracted by the casting in Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptation, which is just as glittering as its 1974 predecessor, also set in 1930s Europe.
Johnny Depp plays American gangster Ratchett, who checks onto the luxurious Orient Express looking nervously over his shoulder, as well he might. His staff are Edward Masterman (Sir Derek Jacobi) and Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), while fellow passengers include Princess Dragomiroff (Dame Judi Dench), her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), the religious Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz) and governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). That’s a lot of thesp heft, but this adaptation seems unlikely to be nominated for as many Academy Awards as Sidney Lumet’s lauded version.
First off, there’s Branagh, hamming it up with a horrifying moustache that looms monstrously on the big screen. His pompous, fussy one-liners are tired and largely unfunny. Several other actors are saddled with dialogue that’s as creaky as the wheezing train brakes, indicating how increasingly hard it is to update Christie for a contemporary audience (although the character of Arbuthnot – previously portrayed by Sean Connery – is played by black actor Leslie Odom Jr). Then there’s Haris Zambarloukos’s distracting cinematography, which darts up, down and around the snowed-in train carriage, as if pining for a bigger canvas.
But then... there is Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s luminous as the flirty widow Mrs Hubbard, and delivers one moving scene that, along with her appearance in ‘Mother!’, makes 2017 a strong Pfeiffer year. Tom Bateman is great fun as train boss Bouc (Christie was perhaps better at writing comically frivolous characters than those who took themselves seriously). If it's all a little too crowded with characters, Branagh’s pacy direction keeps the story zipping along to a conclusion that’s tense even if you remember whodunnit.