Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express: New at Reason

By the time this latest film version of Agatha Christie's 80-year-old novel shuffled to its conclusion, the person I most wanted to see murdered on the Orient Express was the central character. Yes, I'm afraid that would be Hercule Poirot, Christie's finicky Belgian sleuth ("probably the greatest detective in the world," as he'll be the first to tell you). Here, played by Kenneth Branagh, instead of past masters like Albert Finney and David Suchet, Poirot is more annoying than usual in his nudgingly colorful eccentricities. (He requires that his soft-boiled eggs be exactly the same height in their egg cups. He is forever telling people to straighten their ties. He sports a mustache the size of a seagull.) And since Branagh is also the movie's director, I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised that his Poirot is a total spotlight-hog, mumbling helpful expository information to himself (and us) at every turn, and sometimes communing with a faded photo of a young woman he addresses as "my Katherine." (I assumed Katherine was dead, but it's possible she just got bored with this windy dude.)

The unceasing focus on Poirot sucks the air out of Christie's story, and leaves very little attention to be paid to the rest of the main cast. This is a serious flaw, because the plot and the clues to the titular mystery are tricky, and the dozen or so other characters are hazily sketched. We soon grasp who Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer are supposed to be: she's a randy widow, he's a crooked art dealer (or is he?). But I found it a little difficult at first to sort out the characters played by Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench; and while Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr.'s function slowly becomes somewhat clear (they're the requisite lovebirds, among other things), and a mysterious Austrian played by Willem Dafoe doesn't stay mysterious for too long, Penélope Cruz's sorrowful Spanish missionary remains boring right up to the end—where in the long tradition of locked-room mysteries, everything is made clear by the world's greatest detective, writes Kurt Loder in his latest review for Reason.

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