Kenneth Branagh on point in star-stuffed 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Updated 11/8/2017 12:10 PM
  • Kenneth Branagh looks a bit villainous as detective Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express."

    Kenneth Branagh looks a bit villainous as detective Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express."

"Murder on the Orient Express" -- ★ ★ ½

When it comes to mustaches, does size matter?

It seems to in Kenneth Branagh's handsomely photographed, star-stuffed murder-mystery based on Agatha Christie's classic novel "Murder on the Orient Express."

The pugnaciously overwrought mustache on Branagh's legendary detective Hercule Poirot makes an italicized, underlined statement in all CAPITALS followed by a dozen !!!!!!!!!!!!

(By comparison, Albert Finney's conservative mustache in Sidney Lumet's 1974 version of "Murder on the Orient Express" appears anemic.)

Branagh's virtually 3-D facial tendrils are exactly how I imagined Poirot's mustache would look, based on Christie's description of the aging, extremely vain Belgian sleuth.

As a bonus, Branagh imbues Poirot with just a touch of his egotistic Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Gilderoy Lockhart from "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." Except, of course, Poirot actually knows what he's doing.

"Murder," adapted with a few changes by screenwriter Michael Green, begins in 1934 Jerusalem with a silly scene in which the great detective sticks his cane into the crack of a brick wall, magically "detecting" that the thief he's about to publicly unmask will run by that very spot and collide with the cane he can't see.

Then, it's all aboard for a mostly all-star cast of characters who become suspects in the murder of Johnny Depp's hardened gangster.

"The killer will not hesitate to kill again!" Poirot declares as he confronts a case so confounding he fears he may not be able to crack it.

Mother Nature provides him plenty of time, as an avalanche derails the Orient Express along hazardous mountain tracks.

A gangster (Johnny Depp), right, and his shifty associate (Josh Gad) prepare to board a train in "Murder on the Orient Express."
A gangster (Johnny Depp), right, and his shifty associate (Josh Gad) prepare to board a train in "Murder on the Orient Express." -

Among the suspects: the gangster's henchman (a woefully underwritten Josh Gad), a scary missionary (Penélope Cruz), a husband-hunting widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), a snooty princess (Judi Dench) with her hand maid (Olivia Colman), a knockout British governess (Daisy Ridley), an unobtrusive waiter (Derek Jacobi), a drug-addicted countess (Ludy Boyton), her short-tempered count (Sergei Polunin), a nerdy, pro-Nazi professor (Willem Dafoe) and a black doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.) replacing Sean Connery's soldier from the 1974 version.

These characters don't develop much depth beyond their labels, allowing the director to lavish lots of tight shots on his favorite actor, the one playing Poirot.

As an actor, Branagh plies his sleuth with welcome humor and curmudgeonly charm. As a director, he moves the action well, but the scenes lack the snap of a riveting thriller with a potential serial killer.

Challenged by claustrophobic train compartments, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos uses tilted horror film framing to open up the visuals. He employs a Scorsese-esque "God shot," looking down on the top of actors' heads in tiny corridors.

Eccentrically bold elevator shots swish up and down the outside of the stalled train, all photographed on 65 mm film stock, just as Quentin Tarantino used in his western "The Hateful Eight." (And the interior sets of both movies fail to capitalize on the richer, more detailed large film format.)

"Murder on the Orient Express" escapes the conventional drawing room revelation of the killer's identity.

Instead, Poirot holds court in a freezing train tunnel with the suspects comically arranged to reference da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

I couldn't help but wonder how Tim Curry might have handled this scene as the detective at the end of the comic murder-mystery "Clue."

• • •

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Other: A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 115 minutes

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