A murder has been committed on the renowned Simplon-Orient Express.
Hercule Poirot, arguably literature’s most famous fictional detectives is – coincidentally – on that train.
Those of us who chain-read Agatha Christie’s mysteries during her resurgence in the 1970s can recall how the parsed and slow confessions of murder suspects could be thrilling in the trusted hands of a great storyteller/detective team.
This new re-imagining of Murder on the Orient Express, by director-star, Kenneth Branagh, takes Christie’s 1934 page-turner and transforms it into a self-conscious melange of hypotheticals that confuse rather than titillate its audience.
For nearly two hours we sit, hopeful, through a litany of plot-thickening star-turns from the likes of Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Judy Dench and Willem Dafoe.
Poirot, undaunted and ever-observant, unravels the spewed clues in good time, briefly considering their merits until his keenly recalled, pre-murder encounters with each suspect leads him to his own formulary of conclusions.
Inside and around the Sturm and Drang exposition of plot is the unremitting scrutiny of Poirot’s interior life and an abundance of uncomfortably tight close-ups of the character’s overly manicured mustache. This psychological and physical investigation of the detective does little to advance the build-up of anticipation required for the finale of any self-respecting whodunit.
Audience attention is further undermined by a large dose of digitized, gauzy photography which steals the story’s thunder out from under itself, as if the Alps – the film’s location – needed visual enhancement.
Instead of amplifying the fear and loathing small places can engender, the train’s interior, lovingly detailed down to the luxurious thread-count on its upholstered dining chairs, is invisibly pried open at the top to allow cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis, a series of overhead shots that add nothing but needless cinematic hocus-pocus.
The film’s final scene – a bizarre mug shot of the cast, reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper – is a pummeling rehash of the story’s twists and turns by the exhausted, Poirot, who throughout the film claims he’s in dire need of a vacation from the rigorous mind puzzles that would confound a lesser detective.
By the end of his diatribe we care little about the characters and think even less of their predicaments.
In the end there’s only Poirot.
We can see how Agatha Christie, herself, during an interview in the 1960’s, began to talk of Poirot – her own invention – as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”
Poirot’s popularity did not wane, so Christie – deemed the best-selling author of all time – waited to kill off this central character of 33 best-selling books until her 1975 novel, Curtains.
Upon his literary death The New York Times ran the only obituary ever published within its pages of a fictional character.