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Murder On The Orient Express: A Mustache in Search of a Film

It all springs forth from the mustache. Kenneth Branagh’s multi-sectional, over-coiffed monster (see above) is the star or, at least, central preoccupation of his new film Murder on the Orient Express, an adaptation of the esteemed 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name, and a successor to the hit 1974 film version by Sidney Lumiet. The baroque new ‘stache is also the main fresh element Branagh brings to his portrayal of its hero: Christie’s iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who uses the oft-cited “little gray cells” in his brain (and, perhaps, a bit of comically-sketched OCD) to superhuman ends in 33 of Christie’s novels and more than 50 of her short stories. Christie wrote that Poirot’s facial hair was among “the most magnificent moustaches in England,” and Branagh seems to have taken that designation very much to heart. One fantasizes about the internal monologue: “Well, one thing I do know: this mustache has got to be at least three times as big as Albert Finney’s!”

The time and energy put into the unprecedented mustache feels like a microcosm of Murder’s aimless creative direction. I went to see Murder mostly because as a kid I loved Agatha Christie and the Mystery! Poirot episodes on PBS, starring the smaller-‘stached, inexhaustible fount of charm David Suchet. But I also wanted to suss out how Branagh actually got such a head-scratcher of a project greenlit. There was also the crucial question of why he needed $55 million to tell a story which is spent entirely within the confines of a train, with deathly little action outside of interrogation sessions in the dining car.

The money, it would seem, went largely toward paying its auspicious cast to use their expensive talents the bare minimum amount. Often, they do this while talking in embarrassing accents they do not themselves have. There’s Johnny Depp as the crooked art dealer with an even-more-sordid past, Penelope Cruz doing an almost criminal amount of nothing as a Spanish missionary (altered from the novel’s Swedish character), Willem Dafoe as a clumsy impostor of a doctor with a proto-Nazi affect, and Judi Dench as a snobby Eastern European princess. The list goes on: Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and more. Aside from that, there’s a pretty elaborate CGI avalanche, which could not have been free. Branagh deigned to go half authentic locomotive and half digital aberration, in the tradition of the computerized 2004 Polar Express and the hijinks-filled locomotive in another infamous Branagh-associated project, 1999’s Wild Wild West. “I want you to feel the snow and smell the steam,” Branagh told The Guardian recently, meaninglessly.

The unnecessary snow’n’steam quotient exemplifies the extent to which Branagh avoids addressing the challenges of Christie’s chamber drama in any interesting way, instead inserting oddball flourishes to break up the necessary investigative conversations that form the meat of the story. Outside of the VFX-heavy train choreography, there’s details like the redundant moral proselytizing on Poirot’s part in the second half of the film and the Last Supper tableau of the ensemble of suspects in the anti-climactic climax. Sometimes Branagh just decides to film conversations outside for no reason, as if he’s trying to creatively re-stage a scene in one of his Shakespeare films. At one point, he and Daisy Ridley’s quippy governess character, Mary Debenham, share tea and pace around, without any apparent motivation, in the snow. Bewildering moments like these interrupt the comfortably shapeless feeling of the rest of the film, which one might have been otherwise able to characterize as inoffensive, or maybe even pleasant.

Murder may be tedious to watch, but it deserves some credit for existing at all. Poirot, the ultimate post-Conan-Doyle super-armchair-detective, has little to do with any sleuths that get anywhere near a multiplex these days, or the craggy investigators in the modern TV procedurals that cross your Netflix recommendations. His subtle comic poise, and the fact that his life doesn’t fall apart over-dramatically during the course of solving every crime, is very much out of fashion with the current, more hardboiled trends. Branagh’s most famous detective role outside of this comes from that universe: the recovering alcoholic and sporadically incompetent father and lover Kurt Wallander, created by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, whose scrappy methods couldn’t be more different from the refined and intensely professional Poirot. In Murder, Poirot takes umbrage with the idea that he just sits around, eats cake, and turns over the mystery in his head like a Sudoku, but that’s essentially what he does in Christie’s story.

There are moments in the movie in which Branagh seems to be awkwardly forcing Poirot toward the existentially fraught detectives of the 21st century. For instance, Poirot gives a few weirdly earnest, boilerplate mini-speeches about the trials of his profession, the nature of right and wrong, and the mysteries of the criminal mind. In past treatments of Poirot, more cosmic reflections are normally subtle asides, not watery-eyed elegies made while staring off into snowy bluffs. At one point toward the end of the film, famously, Poirot dares the mysterious Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to shoot him by placing a gun in front of her. Branagh takes to the point of wild pathos with a scream, pitted against the ominously tinkling post-minimalist piano music which seems to loop maddeningly throughout the entire third act of the movie.

Murder stops short of being a full-stop, 2010s-core gritty reboot, though that absurdity would have served us all right in this age of ape-and-mutant-filled movies overrun with terrorism overtones and Holocaust imagery. But these scattered moments of overwrought drama are totally out of sync with the more playful feeling of the movie’s first act. There, Poirot measures the proportionality of his eggs on his breakfast plate and, in a nonsensical act of grand theater, unveils the solution to a jewel-theft case in front of a huge crowd at the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem.

Outside of a few of these early moments, Murder on the Orient Express isn’t much fun at all. Rather than making the unenlightened viewer truly understand the story, or grasp the moment-to-moment stakes, Branagh treats Christie’s story like a revered, canonical text that he needs to recast in clever and insubstantial ways. Ultimately, he just makes it less exciting and more incomprehensible: For all the invasive and heavily leading music cues, it still takes us a long time to understand how we are meant to feel about any of these characters, or sense the contours of the script’s tension. It takes the likes of Josh Gad’s vocal fry and indignant snot working overtime in closeups and Leslie Odom, Jr.’s athletic Broadway-theatrical chops to wring some kind of clear impression out of it.

Indeed, as Branagh warned The Guardian, it may be mostly the expensive computerized steam that we really feel here, along with the bristle of those prodigiously waxed wisps against the steampunk-looking mustache guard Poirot wears in bed. Is this appeal enough to inspire Hollywood to take a chance on the Death on the Nile sequel Branagh-as-Poirot sets up at the end of the film, as if he’s filming the post-credits scene in a Marvel movie? One would have thought it was a pretty unsure bet, despite the film’s success with older Dench-heads and overseas audiences. As it turns out, that assumption was hasty; Twentieth Century Fox is reportedly putting Nile into production, with Branagh returning as the director and star. Will he manage to parlay pseudo-edgy Poirot into a full-blown franchise? It still seems impossible, but a mustache can dream, can’t it?