In 1934, Agatha Christie stoked up a standard locked-room mystery by setting it on the titular steam locomotive as it hurtles from Istanbul to Calais. Four decades later, Kenneth Branagh finds interesting ways to grease the wheels of this new take of the novel. The plot, though, essentially remains the same: legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) aboard the famous train to join a throng of colourful characters: Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), businessman Samuel Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and his assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), missionary Pilar Estravados with an incredible and horrible Spanish accent in the English version (Penélope Cruz), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), butler Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi), maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), car salesman Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Count and Countess Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton), and governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley). No sooner has Poirot settled into his bunk than there are bumps in the night. The next morning, one of the passengers is discovered dead in a locked cabin, here is where the action begins.
The survivors, none quite what they seem to be, are played by a stellar collection. Dame Judi Dench is absurdly under-used as a morose, irritable old girl with a vaguely Russian accent. But yes, she does an amazing job, as always. I have sympathy for Branagh, a great actor and a fine director on his day weighed down by the challenge of creating suspense with a film that everybody know the story. But then... there is Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s luminous as the flirty widow Mrs Hubbard, and delivers one moving scene that makes 2017 a strong Pfeiffer year. Tom Bateman is great fun as train boss Bouc. If it's all a little too crowded with characters, Branagh’s pacy direction keeps the story zipping along to a conclusion that’s tense even if you remember who is the killer.
The costumes are gorgeous, the cinematography lustrous and the picturesque shots of Jerusalem, Malta, Istanbul and those mountains lend a patina of the tourist-board promo to a film that works best on that level. Ceremonious tracking shots and psychologically probing close-ups abound, while the discovery of the body is shot from a devious, unnerving bird’s eye view – made all the more so as the camera is left to linger in the corridor, cheating us of the chance to see the untouched crime scene with our own eyes.
The film makes up for this with something new: a Jerusalem-set prologue, the original impassable snowdrift has been beefed up into an avalanche that derails the train entirely, stranding it on a creaking viaduct, more scenes outside the train —which was buid 15 feets from the floor in Surrey—, Penélope Cruz’s character is now a Spanish missionary rather than a Swedish one, guns and shoots that never happen in the book, Arbuthnot is now a black English doctor and Foscarelli is now Marquez —still a car dealer, but Mexican and not Italian.
Christie knew what she was doing. Poirot’s love life is irrelevant. It adds nothing, and only reminds us that sometimes it’s possible, on a film set, to do too many things.