Most of you would have watched films or read stories that derive their plots and twists from Dame Agatha Christie's seminal 83-year-old murder mystery. That works for and against Kenneth Branagh's modern version of this literary classic. For most people, the film has no shock factor or mind-blowing twist. So star, director and the man who made Shakespeare "cool" for the modern generation, Kenneth Branagh, needed to infuse his adaptation with character, humour and suspense to counter the audience apathy. Does he succeed? That's what I went to the theatre trying to figure out. A mystery slightly lesser in size than the one this film's protagonist Hercule Poirot is presented with.
We first find Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) and his enviable moustache in Israel. Between being miffed by the size of the eggs he has been presented for breakfast and solemnly talking about his monochromatic worldview, Poirot solves a theft with nothing more than a walking cane and his trademark gray cells. In one swift motion, Branagh infuses his character with personality and intellect, and tells the audience that he, and he alone, is the most entertaining part of the movie.
Soon, Poirot finds himself returning to London via the much-lauded Orient Express. His friend and director of the titular train, Bouc (Tom Bateman), assures him that his three-day ride will be filled with nothing but relaxation. Poirot runs into a colourful set of characters as he boards the train, and as luck would have it, one of them is murdered in the dead of the night.
After being subject to an avalanche that derails the train, the more warm-blooded of the train's occupants are stranded in some snowy mountains with a dead body and a murderer in their midst. Poirot tasks himself with finding the lone killer on a train full of people who seem to have reasonable cause to murder that frankly despicable man, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp).
While this premise is the godfather to almost every locked-door mystery, it has to deal with the fact that its ultimate reveal and the points leading up to the reveal haven't been updated in over eight decades. While updating these plot points would mean heresy to most literature aficionados, modernizing the characters and their conflict is something most everyone would welcome.
Sadly, using an Imagine Dragons song in its trailer seems to be the only (misguided) way the movie expresses its modern sensibilities. Neither the governess (Daisy Ridley) nor the coloured doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) nor the princess (Dame Judi Dench) nor the devout Christian (Penelope Cruz) nor the secretary, aide and conductor, (and finally) nor the despicable Samuel Ratchett are in any way compelling or memorable. Maybe they needed hilariously over-the-top moustaches, too, or a story that makes sense when looked at from both ends - who's to say?
But wait; there is one man with the aforementioned mustache - the one, the only, the theatrical, the memorable, the hilariously Shakespearian, best detective in the world, Hercule Poirot. Director/star Kenneth Branagh and writer Michael Green add a sense of humanity to the usually cold and calculating Belgian detective that has been absent from previous iterations of the character.
A throwaway initial joke involves his stamping both feet into cow dung to achieve a sense of symmetry and order. While this is meant to induce a laugh, the deeper meanings to this action are hidden in plain sight, if only one chooses to move the manure away. This is a man set in his ways, and when the world has given him all the success it has to offer for sticking to said guns, why would he change? The derailed train delaying its scheduled journey acts as a conduit to Poirot commencing his own journey of self-discovery and growth.
In the hands of a lesser actor, this journey could have been rendered unwarranted and unearned. But Kenneth Branagh is no ordinary actor. He concocts a memorable mixture made of 40% Shakespearian theatricality, 40% Inspector Jacques Clouseau from The Pink Panther
and 20% inimitable facial hair to create a character whose antics you well and truly enjoy.
Sadly, this sentiment does not carry over to the other characters and actors. Their motivations and actions are severely one-note as they neither grow nor sink into their characters. The performances are passable - there is too much genuine talent involved not to be - but there is a sense of hollowness to their catharsis owing to how the movie helps them get there.
This is further reinforced by the film's seemingly pointless use of excellent tracking shots, overhead shots, close-ups and so forth. While the cinematography makes the movie look exquisite, it lacks the visual flair and claustrophobia-inducing camera moves that a good mystery should have in its back pocket.
Countering this egregious showing off is the inoffensive and passable score. It keeps the film ticking along like the clanks of a moving train, afraid to veer away from the pre-set path.
On a whole, the movie itself refuses to veer away from said pre-set path for the simple reason that changing elements of the story means rewriting The Dame's masterwork. Sadly, she isn't around anymore to spice her good old story up for modern eyes with that current of creativity and terror only she could make flow through her immaculate writing. And with that, the film moves itself into a locked-box puzzle that its characters and makers cannot solve.
The good people walking in with fresh, unhampered eyes are bound to be entertained by Branagh's antics and the story itself, whereas weary aficionados of literature and cinema are bound to leave their halls moderately entertained at a version whose existence seems unnecessary.