Kenneth Branagh has a history of being upstaged by his facial hair. His 1996 version of Hamlet was the first to present Shakespeare’s play in its entirety on film, but that feat, and the preservation of Branagh’s celebrated stage performance, was undercut by the shape-shifting soul patch sported by his prince of Denmark, which seemed to fluctuate with the north-northwest wind. As the villain in Wild Wild West, his intricately landscaped beard made for a pointed contrast with hero Will Smith’s untended stubble; only a truly evil man could spend so much time self-grooming.
Those follicular follies, however, pale before the massive mustache strapped onto Branagh’s face in Murder on the Orient Express, in which he plays Agatha Christie’s iconic sleuth Hercule Poirot. The movie introduces Poirot from the back, tsk-tsking the imperfection of the soft-boiled eggs that have been placed before him in a Jerusalem hotel, but once the camera makes its way up to his face, there is literally no getting around it. Previously, Poirot’s lip fuzz—Albert Finney’s in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Orient Express, or David Suchet’s in the long-running ITV series named after the Belgian detective—has hovered on the edge of being un peu ridicule, but Branagh’s is a swooping, architecturally implausible affectation that makes it look as if a tiny but majestic falcon has parked itself just under his nose.
Murder on the Orient Express, which Branagh also directed, turns out to be much like the mustache on his Poirot: impressively elaborate but merely decorative. With his flair for cinematic artifice and performances pushed just to the edge of camp, Branagh is a far better match for the source material than Lumet was, and he signals his intent to revel in the intricacies of Christie’s contraption early on with a meticulously choreographed tracking shot that gives us a glimpse of each of the Orient Express’ key passengers—13 suspects and their eventual victim—and when he shows us the inside of the train, it’s from above, looking down through where the roof ought to be. As in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, the effect is like looking into a scale model of a crime scene even before the crime has taken place, or peering into a child’s shoebox diorama.
That’s also what it’s like meeting the movie’s cast of characters, who feel like inert scale models awkwardly blown up to life-size. Michael Green’s screenplay adapts its source material by making a few cautious elisions, like combining the characters of the colonel and the doctor, but the irreducible list of murder suspects, plus Poirot and his associate Bouc (Tom Bateman), leaves a lot of mouths to feed, dramatically speaking. As a crass American businessman, Johnny Depp’s Ratchett builds up enough bad will in his few minutes onscreen to make anyone who’s so much as brushed past him in the corridor a credible suspect for his murder; Depp’s performance amounts to a riff on Richard Widmark’s in the 1974 version, but it’s heightened enough to make a powerful impression in his few minutes of screen time and leave you happy never to see him again. As the wealthy divorcée Mrs. Hubbard, Michelle Pfeiffer strikes a canny balance between old-Hollywood glamour and psychological realism.
And then there’s the star turn Branagh has gifted himself with. His Poirot is, like those before him, a vain, persnickety dandy who sleeps with an elaborate contraption on his face to keep his moustache in shape and chuckles to himself as he reads A Tale of Two Cities in his berth. But he’s also, thanks to a combination of actorly vanity and hack screenwriting tips, been turned into a low-key action hero who lays enemies low with his trusty cane and can throw a punch as easily as he can dismantle an alibi. He’s even given a departed female sweetheart to pine over, perhaps so we don’t draw the wrong conclusion from his prissy precision and familiarity with the varieties of lace handkerchiefs.
But even though the cast is stuffed with recognizable faces—Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Daisy Ridley, and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., among others—it can be easy to confuse the British governess with the German lady’s maid, or the elderly manservant with the middle-aged chauffeur. Christie’s novel is studded with brief but acutely observed interactions that sketch her characters in precise detail, but Branagh is more preoccupied with the challenges of keeping a movie set in a series of steel tubes visually interesting than he is in engaging its story.
In a sense, Murder on the Orient Express’ lackluster quality highlights what a proficient director Branagh has become. His live-action Cinderella did justice to the superlative beauty of the animated original, and Murder is similarly a joy to behold, if sometimes also a slog to watch. It’s only too fitting that it’s set on a luxury train whose forward movement has stalled.