Kenneth Branagh may be an uneven director, but at least he knows what a film should be. The first 30 minutes or so of his Murder on the Orient Express are promising: There’s a beautifully shot preamble, set near Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, in which the outlandishly mustachioed perfectionist detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) waits patiently as a local boy attempts to procure two precisely matched eggs for his breakfast. A more pressing task, involving the theft of a priceless object, awaits him, but he takes his time. The sandy ancient-city landscape, the bright blue of the sea framed by an even brighter blue sky dotted with breezy white clouds: It’s clear from the start that Branagh’s ambitions are, as always, off the charts. His last picture, the 2015 Cinderella, was a charming, lively spectacle, and I stockpile DVDs of his extraordinary but little-seen 2006 Magic Flute to press upon my unsuspecting victims. Branagh always wants to give us something to look at, and this movie’s prologue, at least, suggests he might succeed.
And then, so gradually it takes you a while to notice, Murder on the Orient Express—adapted from Agatha Christie’s much-loved murder mystery, which was also scaled by Sidney Lumet in 1974, with Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall—begins wobbling off its very carefully laid tracks. Set in the mid-1930s, aboard a luxury train wending its way from Istanbul to Europe, the plot involves, quite obviously, a murder and a disparate bunch of suspects. Aside from the fact that not many women feel like looking at Johnny Depp’s face right now, there’s nothing wrong with the cast Branagh has assembled: Michelle Pfeiffer is slinky, funny and sexy as a middle-aged husband hunter. Daisy Ridley plays prim but smart governess Miss Mary Debenham. Willem Dafoe is an Austrian proponent of the master race, or maybe just a spy. Judi Dench is a sour Russian princess with two yappy lapdogs in tow. Depp is the sleazeball gangster Edward Ratchett, and though he has the right waxy-skinned, shifty-eyed look for the character, he’s no fun to watch and you’re not sorry to see him go.
All of this should add up to something that’s at least OK. But the movie’s energy starts to flag almost as soon as the train has left the station. The cars are luxe and lustrous, outfitted with paneled wood and prismatic glass windows. (Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos makes some nice use of those details.) But the further Poirot goes with his interrogations, the sloggier the movie becomes. Branagh approaches his role with enthusiastic hamminess—mostly, it works. But he doesn’t make proper use of what should be a gorgeously glamorous setting. Even the costumes—the occasional floaty silk dressing gown aside—are disappointing. Instead of settling in happily for the ride, we’re left restlessly wishing we could turn on our phones to check the time. All aboard for dullsville.