By Anna Jung
Kenneth Branagh packed his portmanteau with every digital possibility modern cinema has to offer. But did he get stuck in a snow bank?
Only two years ago, Branagh (56) entertained us with his latest blockbuster Cinderella (2015), and now he has put some colour into another classic. Although the script makes the one or other detour, it still sticks closely to Agatha Christie’s original:
In the 1930’s, the Orient Express, which is on its way from Istanbul to London, gets stuck due to heavy snow. Among the passengers is the world-famous Belgian detektive Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), who just managed to get a last-minute cabin. Bit by bit, he gets to know the other voyagers only to discover that one of them has been brutally murdered next door. The victim is the criminal businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who has far more skeletons in his closet than Poirot could spot at first sight. Poirot, who actually needed a rest, is intrigued by the strangeness of the case. Retchett’s body was stabbed with a knife twelve times, but all the stabs were carried out differently.
Aware that the murderer must be still on the train, Poirot starts to question the suspects. Among them are the lively Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the fair Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the geriatric Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), and the devotional Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz). His first thought that ”there is something about that tangle of strangers pressed together for days with nothing in common but the need to go from one place to another, and never see each other again”, fades step by step and turns into a more complex picture, that still needs to be framed.
The author of the crime thriller (published in 1934), who claims to have had her best ideas while doing the household chores, impressed Berthold Brecht, Thomas Mann and Konrad Adenauer in her time. Agatha Christie liked the concept of murder by numbers: Poirot finds hints, connects them and draws his conclusions. Christie herself claimed that her work is mere amusement. Sidney Lumet embedded this idea in his first film adaption. The film from 1974 shows nice and tidy pictures and presents a colourful ensamble of Hollywood icons like Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman. The atmosphere is supported by a fine British humor. There is nothing to add. But Branagh’s version is actually the fifth remake.
Watching the first scenes, it becomes obvious, that Lumet’s classic is the model for Branagh’s representation. His new ensemble of nowadays stage favorites is in no way inferior, but does not present something new either. Although Branagh serves the audience with all the special effects and technical possibilties of our time, he could not stand up to the old charm that has gone missing.
The multi-talent Branagh, who is especially known for his film adaptions of ”Henry V.” and ”Hamlet” has the tendency to the control and invests his energy in many projects. When he was only nine years old, he got rid of his northern Irish accent to avoid being teased. In his version of The Murder on the Orient Express, however, he could have shown more of this spirit. Playing the leading part himself, he appears a little old-maidish and more sentimental than the Poirot Albert Finney embodied. He was a lot easier and more ironical.
Whenever the camera leaves the wagons, the image of the vast landscape, snowy mountains and valleys creates a romantic scenario. But sadly it becomes obvious that the crew has not spent a day outside, and therefore everything looks pretty artificial. It reminds the audience of the computer animated children’s movie Polar Express and creates the feeling of being Harry Potter on his way to Hogwarts.
To sum it all up, it is hard to figure out, what additional benefit the viewer can gain from watching the film. It evokes the impression that this production took place solely for the profit, also because the next project is being advertised in the last scene. Poirot’s expertise is demanded and Branagh’s next movie announced: Death on the Nile coming soon.