There is no bigger fan of Kenneth Branagh than Kenneth Branagh himself.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. It takes a certain amount of damn fool arrogance to think you can be a film director in the first place. Branagh has always attacked his film work with a sense that he is not just a storyteller, but a Great Storyteller. There is import to everything. A swagger. A grandiose attitude. Sure, part of that comes with material like Shakespeare or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written at an almost operatic pitch and meant to be delivered the same way. But even when he makes something like Dead Again, it’s clear that Branagh adores everything about Branagh, unabashedly.
I can think of no better combination of director and actor, then, to bring the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot roaring back to life on the big screen, and from the moment I saw his gigantic double-mustache, I was sold on Branagh’s take on the character. Michael Green, who has been having the best year of any studio screenwriter (his name is on Logan, Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049, and he was a writer/producer on American Gods as well), clearly loves Agatha Christie’s work, and he has made sure to push Poirot’s eccentricities front and center. They could easily spin a franchise out of this take on the detective, and there’s an opening scene set at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem that brings us in at the very end of one of Poirot’s cases. It’s one of the major departures in the way this film handles the material as opposed to Sidney Lumet’s monstrously popular adaptation from 1974, in which Albert Finney played the lead role. That film opened with a framing device that laid some groundwork for the eventual solution to the mystery, showing us headlines and footage from the crime scene of a kidnapping. Branagh’s film doesn’t even broach that subject for the first 45 minutes or so, and then when it does, it only introduces it slowly, gradually.
Instead, Branagh makes this the story of how Poirot learns to accept imperfections in a world that he wishes were perfect with every fiber of his being. He describes his gift for detection as a sort of curse, a knack for seeing the world as it should be, then fixating on the ways in which it falls short. Those details are the details that tell the stories that it often seems he picks out of thin air. In that prologue, we see how fastidious he is, how he requires a symmetry from everything, how aesthetically driven he is. He requires his morning eggs to be the exact same size. He literally has two full-size handlebar mustaches side by side, meeting under his nose. He can’t even speak to someone if their tie is not completely straight.
Poirot is also always watching. He is a man who is constantly taking in details, and it means that when he enjoys something, he enjoys it at full volume. He may be a pain in the ass, but he seems capable of great joy as Branagh plays him. He loves his luxuries. He loves his desserts. And he loves his friends, including Bouc (Tom Bateman), whose rich father has gotten him a cushy job as the manager of the Orient Express. When there is a crisis in London, Poirot is asked to find a last-minute seat on the Orient Express out of Istanbul, and it’s only because Bouc intervenes that he is able to book a berth. That turns out to be a horrible coincidence, though, because when an avalanche hits, stopping the train on an isolated, snow-covered trestle, one of the passengers, the loathsome Mr. Ratchett (an appropriately slimy Johnny Depp) is murdered.
There’s a phrase I’m going to use to describe this film’s pleasures, and it’s a term that terrifies marketing departments: “old-fashioned.” But that shouldn’t be a bad thing. There is a very particular way that Christie stories unfold. First we establish the setting, then we lay out the colorful cast of suspects, then Poirot begins working his way through them, one by one. These films have to end with everyone brought together so that Poirot can lay out what happened and how in one big final sequence. And this film plays by all of those rules, without hesitation. Michael Green is smart enough to know that you don’t reinvent Agatha Christie. You may find new ways to engage with her work, and there is an energy here that feels very modern, but you don’t rebuild it from the ground up. If you’re familiar with the 1974 film, you’ll know many of this film’s general beats. In a case like this, much of the final quality simply rests on whether or not you got the casting right.
By and large, they did. Michelle Pfeiffer’s been having a hell of a year. Her work in Wizard of Lies was terrific, and whatever you think of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Pfeiffer was electric in her role. She is often the best thing in her scenes in this film, and she and Branagh seem to relish bouncing off of each other. Many of the cast members are playing people with secrets, and that means they are more guarded and less open, making it harder to really make an impression as a character. Even so, when you’ve got talent like Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr., Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, and Willem freakin’ Dafoe as the various passengers, you know you’re in good hands. Everyone’s good, but Dafoe and Gad seem to get the most stand-out moments.
Branagh’s weakest link has always been his staging and shooting of action scenes, and sure enough, there’s one chase scene that takes place that suddenly gets frantic and visually confusing — a real shame considering how clean and controlled most of the film is. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has worked with Branagh a few times, including both Sleuth and Thor, and he might be Branagh’s ideal photographer. Whether he pushes back against some of Branagh’s more insane excesses (the crane shots in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are so crazy, it’s like the crane industry underwrote the film as an advertisement) or whether Branagh has calmed down visually, this is damn near elegant most of the time. There’s a lot of CGI here, but it’s lovely, stylized and grand in scale. Patrick Doyle’s score is equal parts pompous and playful, a fitting match for Poirot, and Jim Clay’s production design is lush and richly detailed.
The film ends with a naked bid at setting up an immediate sequel, and it’s interesting that they’re clearly aiming at the same follow-up film as was made to the ’74 version. Whether they get there or not will depend entirely on how audiences respond, but it’s clear, from first frame to the last, that at the very least, this take on the classic character will have one undying fan. How lucky were they that it also happens to be the film’s director?
Running time: 114 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic