In addition to helming the film, Branagh stars as renowned detective Hercule Poirot, whose investigative skills are rivaled only by his OCD. Remaining very faithful to the source material, the 1930s-set story finds a weary Poirot – who’s eager for some time off – reluctantly hopping on the titular train for a three-day trek from Istanbul to London. Unfortunately for our sleepy sleuth, he’s barely settled in to his bunk when one of his fellow passengers – a brash American named Ratchett (Johnny Depp) – is found dead.
When a sudden avalanche strands the train in the mountains, Poirot has no choice but to try to identify the murderer before he or she kills again. And the array of suspects runs the gamut: could it be the wealthy socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer) or the English governess (Daisy Ridley)? The aging princess (Judi Dench) or the Austrian professor (Willem Dafoe)? The mopey missionary (Penélope Cruz) or the squirrelly secretary (Josh Gad)? Or one of the other half-dozen or so other passengers? Who knows.
Oh wait, Poirot knows!
And that was one of my biggest problems with Murder...: watching the super-savvy Poirot solve a murder in his head is boring. For the audience, the fun of a whodunit is trying to figure out who done it before the folks onscreen, but Branagh (and perhaps Christie – I admit I haven’t read the novel) never lets the audience put the puzzle pieces together themselves. Instead, after a series of clues and events that seem to have nothing to do with each other, Poirot suddenly announces he’s solved the crime and proceeds, in grand fashion, to explain who killed Ratchett. But how is that entertaining? It’s a bit like watching someone solve a calculus problem – sure, it’s impressive that they figured it out, but is it interesting?
Branagh also puts himself (and his wildly distracting moustache) in the center of the action, to the detriment of all his fancy co-stars, each of whom has maybe a handful of lines of dialogue, at most. That’s barely enough to create any kind of memorable performance, let alone a character with even the faintest whiff of depth. Worse, none of the actors in this A-list ensemble really ever gets to act opposite anyone other than Branagh. I would have loved to see Ridley and Dench share some screen time. Or Depp and Dench. Or Cruz and Gad. Or Cruz and Ridley. Or any combination of the talent onscreen, really. Save for one scene in which all the characters are gathered in one spot for Poirot’s “I’ve solved it!” speech, the actors are so isolated from each other that they could easily have all shot their scenes independently. And, to me, that’s a waste of a really awesome cast.
Despite some gorgeous art direction and set design, which give the film a beautifully lush, throwback look, Murder... is ultimately pretty slow and uneventful. I found myself starting to nod off a few times, and I saw the film in the mid-morning. Given that the studio, in the film’s final scene, drops a very unsubtle hint that a sequel is clearly under consideration, here’s hoping the next Christie flick has a lot less Branagh and a whole lot more spark.