After an unlikely period as a director of high-profile tentpole pictures -- Thor, Jack Ryan, Cinderella -- Kenneth Branagh returns to more personal filmmaking with this new adaptation of Agatha Christie's beloved novel, previously filmed to great effect by Sidney Lumet in 1974. It's a more personal picture this time because, unlike those recent efforts, this one stars Kenneth Branagh, following in the prominent footsteps of Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, and the deeper tracks of David Suchet, by taking on the role of Christie's fussy Belgian, Hercule Poirot. For that you need an accent and a moustache. Branagh's Poirot accent -- I don't know whether it can be described accurately as a Belgian accent -- is at least superior to his attempts at an American accent; he's one of the few British actors who can't really do that well. It's with the moustache that Branagh really tries to differentiate himself from past Poirots. Certainly the preemptive favorite for the Best Moustache Oscar, should that category suddenly come into being, it's big, brown and bristly where the typical Poirot look is small, black and oily. As the years tell on the former boy-wonder actor-director, you wonder sometimes whether this is a Poirot mystery or The Sam Elliott Story. Ultimately, however, there's no mistaking the familiar story of a murder with a seemingly ever-expanding number of likely suspects, and if you've seen the Lumet movie (I have) or read the Christie original (I haven't) the only suspense the new film offers is whether Branagh's writer, Michael Green -- who was very busy this year with Wolverine, Alien and Blade Runner sequels -- would dare change Christie's ending. Spoiler alert: he doesn't.
That leaves it up to Branagh and his cast of actors to make the story fresh in other ways. There are some stabs at progressive casting that let Penelope Cruz and Leslie Odom Jr. into the picture, but only Willem Dafoe as the Pinkerton man (with an extra level of imposture) is arguably an improvement over his 1974 predecessor. The other actors aren't bad, though Michelle Pfeiffer goes maybe too far over the top, but as a director of actors Branagh, for all his Shakespearean experience, is no Sidney Lumet. He proves that further by indulging in overblown camera movements in an effort to give what should be an economically staged story -- apart from the Orient Express's necessarily luxurious furnishings -- a quasi-epic feel. If two characters are chatting in a boxcar, he'll have the camera hovering at some distance, and then he'll have it rise from below, or descend from above. Toward the end he rolls out a long shot following Poirot through a number of train cars, but it only reminds you that he'd done a much more impressive tracking shot in his debut film, Henry V, nearly thirty years ago. He even gives Poirot a Bond-style prologue as a mystery-solving peacemaker in the Old City of Jerusalem, and for all we know, given the nod toward Death on the Nile at the very end, he may have a franchise in mind, if audiences demand it. The theater where I saw the film is a neighborhood arthouse where the audience skews older, and there was a healthy crowd for a second matinee on a cold November afternoon, but I doubt the houses will look the same at the multiplexes. If he wants and gets another chance at Poirot I'd recommend that Branagh not go for the pre-sold titles but look for stories that have not been filmed as theatrical features. His Murder is not a bad film by any means, but in the end it did nothing to make me forget the Lumet film or what I knew to expect from the Christie mystery. But as someone who remembers a 43 year old movie fondly, perhaps I wasn't this film's target audience. Maybe those who know nothing of Agatha Christie or Sidney Lumet are the ones who'll rightly decide this film or this franchise's fate.