“My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”
Kenneth Branagh channels that same self confidence as he acts in and directs this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s iconic novel. Branagh aims for a pensive, if camp, take on Poirot, but he falls short of that and instead it feels like watching a live-action game of Cluedo, as if another Jumanji film wasn’t enough.
This isn’t the first adventure on the Orient Express to hit our screens and it isn’t even the most star studded. Sidney Lumet directed the 1974 version featuring the likes of Albert Finney as Poirot, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Jacqueline Bisset. Comparisons are inevitable and the difference between the two is night and day. Lumet’s got nominated for six Oscars, with Bergman taking home Best Supporting Actress, and I cannot foresee any category in which Branagh will get a nomination.
It is Jerusalem where the film begins in a truly bizarre opening. We get an aerial shot of some Jewish men approaching the Wailing Wall when suddenly a small child runs past and the chase is seemingly on. He is carrying something in his hands, although it is obscured by a cloth. When he reaches his destination he reveals four eggs and offers them to a shadowy figure, but they are refused, so the child runs away and gets more. The shadowy figure is revealed to be Poirot, who wants the perfect boiled eggs for his breakfast but then declines them once more when they aren’t to his taste.
The whole purpose of this seems to be for an anecdote a few minutes later. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim citizens of Jerusalem are up in arms about a stolen religious artefact with a rabbi, a priest, and an iman as the suspects. Poirot lines the three up against the wall as an angry mob forms around them, then makes a quip about how he shares their frustration, as he couldn’t get the perfect boiled eggs for his breakfast, and then another about how similar the situation is to the old jokes. I’m not sure which demographic these jokes were aimed at, but they felt off compared to the rest of the humour.
Poirot quickly dispatches the mystery and decides to take some well earned R&R, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t last long and he is summoned to London for another case, travelling on the renowned Orient Express to get there. In the scenes leading up to the train leaving the station, Branagh introduces every character in quick-fire fashion, with no time to get a good look at one before the next appears on the screen. The desire is clearly to do all character development on the train, especially after the murder happens, but it would perhaps have been better to only show a selection of passengers as they board and continue the introductions on the journey.
Branagh attempts to juxtapose the claustrophobia of the train with the landscape around it by sprinkling in aerial views of the snowy mountains the train passes through, but the CGI work looks incredibly fake. The train’s initial departure point, Istanbul, is similarly painted with computerised images and there are a lot of parallels in design to 2016’s Assassin’s Creed. I want to be engrossed in the world he is trying to create, but when the inside of the train is meticulously detailed and in high definition and the outside looks like The Polar Express (2004) I can’t help becoming detached.
The main downfall is that the intrigue and mystery about the murder on the train relies solely on the twist at the end. If you have read the book or are otherwise aware of how it ends then the glossy finish won’t mask the lack of depth, however if you were, as I, unaware of the story you’ll find enough here to entertain you for two hours.
Branagh’s vanity project suffers from just that, vanity, by trying too hard to make every moment meaningful. As the credits roll, his intent is crystal clear — to proclaim “My name is Kenneth Branagh and I am probably the greatest writer and director in the world.”