Murder, she wrote, and Hollywood loved her for it. Or they used to, at least — plundering Agatha Christie’s vast catalog of posh, stabby whodunits for countless screen adaptations. But it’s taken actor-director Kenneth Branagh to sweep her from the dustier corners of PBS to center stage again in his Murder on the Orient Express, a lushly old-fashioned adaptation wrapped in a veritable turducken of pearls, monocles, and international movie stars.
Branagh himself takes the plum role of one of Christie’s most beloved creations, the fussily brilliant Belgian detective Hercule (pronounced Air-kool; “I do not slay ze lions”) Poirot. A prim 1930s dandy with a penchant for bone-dry bons mots and a mustache so magnificent it looks like an eagle has landed its wingspan on his upper lip, he solves seemingly impossible crimes with a squinted eye and a flick of his silver walking stick. But trouble tends to find the good inspector, and so even a brief respite on the luxe Express — “three days free of care, concern, or crime” — becomes a snowbound CSI when a shady art dealer who believes he’s marked for death (Johnny Depp, doing his best dime-store Al Capone) attempts to enlist Poirot’s help in ferreting out his would-be assassin. The suspects are legion: It could be his long-suffering secretary (Josh Gad) or butler (Derek Jacobi), or the purring widow (Michelle Pfeiffer) he nearly kissed in the corridor. Then again, there’s also something furtive about clever governess Mary (Daisy Ridley) and her hardly secret lover, Dr. Arbuthnot (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.); the imperious Princess Dragomiroff and her cowed German maid (Judi Dench and Olivia Colman, respectively); pious Pilar, the saintly missionary with the jagged scar on her cheek (Penélope Cruz); slick Cuban auto magnate Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); and jumpy Austrian professor Gerhard (Willem Dafoe). Stashed somewhere in there too are an elusive Count and Countess, high on ballet and barbiturates.
The resolution of the movie’s central mystery is almost endearingly corny, less shocking twist than slow dinner-theater twirl. But Branagh executes his double duties with a gratifyingly light touch, tweaking the story’s more mothballed elements without burying it all in winky wham-bam modernity. His Poirot isn’t just highbrow camp, he’s a melancholy soul with a strict moral code. And his superhuman intuition serves him well; in the final scenes, he may just smell a sequel.