As direc­tor of ‘ Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press,’ Ken­neth Branagh dwells on the star: Ken­neth Branagh

Chicago Sun-Times - - MOVIES - RICHARD ROEPER

If Her­cule Poirot were alive in the 2010s, we’d say he has OCD for sure, what with his fix­a­tion on mea­sur­ing his soft- boiled break­fast eggs to make sure they’re the same size and his frus­tra­tion with any­one whose tie isn’t straight.

We’d also say Poirot has no so­cial fil­ter. As the de­tec­tive goes about his day, ob­serv­ing ev­ery­thing and miss­ing noth­ing, he won’t hes­i­tate to tell some­one to stop talk­ing “be­cause you’re just mak­ing it worse,” or telling a new ac­quain­tance, “I’m just as dis­ap­pointed with you.”

He also laughs up­roar­i­ously while read­ing “A Tale of Two Cities,” as if Dick­ens had writ­ten the fun­ni­est comic novel ever.

No­body in “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” seems the least bit put off by or even slightly dis­turbed by Poirot’s pe­cu­liar­i­ties. Quite the con­trary. This be­ing the early 1930s and Poirot be­ing the most fa­mous and ac­com­plished de­tec­tive in the world, al­most all seem de­lighted and cap­ti­vated and mes­mer­ized by Poirot’s zany, metic­u­lously kept mus­tache and his di­rect man­ner of speak­ing — even when he’s catch­ing them in a lie.

“You’re a very clever man!” says a glam­orous mur­der sus­pect when she’s caught in a web of de­ceit. She nearly breaks into ap­plause.

Ken­neth Branagh is the direc­tor and the star of this new adap­ta­tion of Agatha Christie’s time- hon­ored clas­sic “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press,” and never let it be said the direc­tor misses an op­por­tu­nity to place his star front and cen­ter, un­for­tu­nately rel­e­gat­ing just about ev­ery­one else in the oblig­a­tory In­ter­na­tional All- Star Cast to a paper- thin char­ac­ter with one or at most two defin­ing per­son­al­ity traits.

( They also get one to two scenes apiece to join Branagh in the cen­ter of the stage — I mean, in the fore­front of the film — to flex their act­ing mus­cles and to act de­lighted or flum­moxed by Poirot’s pow­ers of cal­cu­la­tion.)

Branagh is a world- class ac­tor and a fine direc­tor, and he scores stylis­tic points on both counts here, but this “Ori­ent Ex­press” loses steam just when it should be gain­ing speed and rac­ing to its pu­ta­tively shock­ing con­clu­sion, which isn’t all that sur­pris­ing — even if you haven’t read the book or seen the 1974 movie star­ring Al­bert Fin­ney and di­rected by Sid­ney Lumet. ( For those who have con­sumed one or the other, I shan’t re­veal if this edi­tion stays true to the source ma­te­rial to the very end.)

Keen to take a long hol­i­day af­ter solv­ing yet an­other crime in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, Poirot boards the Ori­ent Ex­press head­ing from the Mid­dle East to Europe, and is soon en­gaged with a num­ber of mys­te­ri­ous and per­haps shady char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing one Ed­ward Ratch­ett ( Johnny Depp, look­ing pale and un­in­ter­ested), a cor­rupt, gun- tot­ing art dealer on the lam from some wronged par­ties who want him dead dead and dead.

He tries to hire Poirot to watch his back. Poirot says no. He doesn’t pro­tect crim­i­nals; he solves crimes. Be­sides, he tells Ratch­ett: “I don’t like your face.”

Not long af­ter, Ratch­ett is found dead in his cabin. An avalanche has con­ve­niently de­railed the Ori­ent Ex­press, leav­ing ev­ery­one trapped on the train and look­ing over their shoul­ders as Poirot searches for mo­tives and in­ter­views them one by one.

What a bunch. Michelle Pfeif­fer ( who gives the best per­for­mance in the film) is Caro­line, a beau­ti­ful woman of a cer­tain age on the hunt for her next hus­band. Pene­lope Cruz is Pi­lar, a deeply re­li­gious nurse. Josh Gad is Hec­tor, ac­coun­tant and as­sis­tant to Ratch­ett. Les­lie Odom Jr. is Dr. Ar­buth­not, im­pa­tient to get to Lon­don.

Daisy Ri­d­ley is Miss Mary Deben­ham, a gov­erness who seems to have a strong con­nec­tion to Dr. Ar­buth­not. Willem Dafoe is the Aus­trian sci­en­tist Ger­hard Hard­man, who has some chill­ing views on race and so­cial sta­tus. ( We meet a half- dozen oth­ers along the way as well.)

At least those are the names and pro­files first pre­sented to Poirot. It’s not long be­fore he be­gins peel­ing away the sur­face lies and dis­cov­er­ing mul­ti­ple con­nec­tions to a long- ago, tragic and very fa­mous case in­volv­ing the kid­nap­ping and mur­der of a child in Amer­ica.

Branagh the direc­tor cre­ates some mar­velous vi­su­als, in­clud­ing long track­ing vi­su­als where we are out­side of the train, peer­ing through the win­dows at the var­i­ous char­ac­ters, and the metic­u­lously ap­pointed din­ing and sleep­ing cars on the mag­nif­i­cent train.

Branagh the ac­tor cracks off a half- dozen amus­ing one­lin­ers. The vet­eran per­form­ers are just fine, of course, but the great Judi Dench and the leg­endary Derek Ja­cobi are vir­tu­ally lost in the clut­ter of char­ac­ters. ( Of the younger set, Ri­d­ley and Gad de­liver the best work.)

When fi­nally the Ori­ent Ex­press chugs to a halt and we learn how and why and when the mur­der was com­mit­ted, the pre­vail­ing thought is:

My dear. It could have been done in a dozen or more so much sim­pler ways.

Judi Dench ( right, with Olivia Cole­man) plays a Rus­sian princess.

Cor­rupt art dealer Ed­ward Ratch­ett ( Johnny Depp) wor­ries about his safety — for good rea­son. 20TH CEN­TURY FOX PHO­TOS

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