Kenneth Branagh brandishes an improbable mustache and suspicious accent in Murder on the Orient Express, but I have no interest in mockery. Surely one reason—not the most exalted reason, maybe, but a reason—to go to the movies is to relish the spectacle of an actor battling outlandish tricks of the trade and making them fun. Branagh understands that kind of make-believe, and he hits it on the button here.
He plays the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, and also directs the film. Poirot boards the deluxe Orient Express in Istanbul, little suspecting a passenger will die in the night and an avalanche will strand the train just long enough for the murder to be solved. The previous big-screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel was a big hit in 1974; it’ll be interesting to see whether there’s still an audience for the material in a landscape of action blockbusters and gross-out comedies. The assembled suspects are almost as starry as the roster for the ‘74 film: Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley (from the new Star Wars series), Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, and a handful of others. Most of the actors get a scene or two to shine, which is the limitation of a story like this. There’s a lot to crowd in, and only 114 minutes to play with.
As director, Branagh mostly stays out of Agatha Christie’s way and lets the material do its surefire thing, except for a couple of ill-advised sequences of people running and jumping. Presumably these were added so they could be put in the film’s trailer and give the impression of something other than a movie in which people talk on a train. But it is a movie where people talk on a train, and a good deal of the dialogue by screenwriter Michael Green is entertaining and pleasingly old-fashioned. In retrospect, the solution—while satisfying—seems so obvious that it probably could’ve also been solved by the world’s second- or third-best detective.
Still, it’s nice to be around Poirot, played by Branagh as a detail freak whose fastidiousness is more of a burden than a gift (he asks strangers if they could straighten their neckties, because the imbalance disturbs him). Amazingly, you get used to his massive mustache after looking at it for a couple of minutes—you know, as you would if a friend had an animal pelt stuck to his upper lip. There’s a strong case here for the value of an actor’s sheer commitment. Opens Friday, Nov. 10, at various theaters, Pated PG-13