Hercule Poirot – the fastidious detective from Belgium, the little man with a “very stiff and military” mustache and head “exactly the shape of an egg” – is one of the most oft-misunderstood characters in fiction. Dame Agatha Christie was not terribly fond of her own creation, finding Poirot insufferably conceited and comically vain. But readers have long taken the character far too seriously, worshipping him for his admittedly remarkable deductive cleverness.
Kenneth Branagh, director and star of this year’s Murder on the Orient Express, does not take Hercule Poirot seriously. He sees him as the Dame saw him: brilliant, yes, but also repressed, arrogant and a tad ridiculous. In short, Branagh plays Poirot as a fussy, funny little man, and he directs Murder on the Orient Express as something approaching a comedy. It’s exactly the right decision on both scores.
On the one hand, Murder on the Orient Express is rather fluffy, a two-hour costume drama that says very little of substance, aside from the few mild potshots Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) take at the racism and classism of the time. But on the other hand, here we have a gorgeous, lavish adaptation (shot on 65mm!) of a beloved novel, featuring an ensemble cast of some of our best actors doing wonderful work, and at a time when we unquestioningly celebrate Marvel movies as popcorn entertainment, why shouldn’t we allow that same attractive but weightless fun in an Agatha Christie mystery?
And the cast really is tremendous. Branagh is such a blast as Poirot, delivering pompous Gilderoy Lockhart self-love in an impeccably mustachioed exterior. With his tidy appearance and wholehearted love of certain foods – symmetrically toasted breads and a perfect hard-boiled egg – Poirot is a fine precursor to a certain Special Agent Dale Cooper. The Orient Express passengers – and suspects in a twisty murder in which nothing is as it seems – include Dame Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad and Lucy Boynton, and while the vast breadth of the cast doesn’t allow much room for depth of performance, everyone does something memorable with their little screentime. There’s a lot of presence in this film, a cast of greats with only six or seven lines but more than capable of making an impression nonetheless. (Also: Johnny Depp is in this movie, but only briefly, and it pains me to say he’s quite good in his five or so minutes.)
The mystery, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a classic, though Branagh seems more preoccupied with style and laughs than clues and deductions. And there’s a wealth of the former, with gorgeous costuming and set design and breathtaking snowy landscapes along the route of the Orient Express. Branagh makes great use of the restrictive confines of the train, shooting lengthy scenes from overhead or following Poirot as he moves down the train to his cabin in one long tracking shot from outside the many windows.
And oh man, the laughs. There’s a studied ridiculousness to the film, a sustained level of melodrama that Branagh wisely plays for polite comedy rather than emotional effect. His cast is perfectly suited to this aim, Oscar winners in fake accents ripping off wigs to reveal equally immaculate hair beneath, Branagh himself playing Poirot as the kind of man who laughs uproariously as he reads A Tale of Two Cities (“Oh, mon cher Dickens.”). The film chugs along at a much brisker pace than the stalled Orient Express, actually leaving me wishing it were about ten minutes longer (a desire with which your reviewer is quite unfamiliar).
The best part of Murder on the Orient Express – the book and the film – isn’t the mystery or the characters, though both are delightful. It’s the aspirationalism of the thing, a reminder of a more elegant life, a time when passengers wore their best gowns and smoking jackets to ride a train from Istanbul to London, eating golden croissants and drinking champagne as they rush past snow-covered mountains. Branagh gets all of this just right while serving the most delectable new version of a character both beloved and ridiculous, and if Monsieur Poirot heads to the Nile next, I’ll be happy to join him there.