Kenneth Branagh is one of the greatest hams in Hollywood. In an industry populated with such notorious scene-chewers as Al Pacino, Nicolas Cage, and Gary Oldman, it takes a certain talent to stand out from the pack, but Branagh makes it look easy. He’s never met a dramatic monologue he didn’t litter with pauses, an accent he didn’t over-enunciate, or a physical tic he didn’t exaggerate. He’s the king of the hams.
Branagh’s been an entertaining cheeseball since he jumped from the theatre world to Hollywood. He’s directed and starred in quality films (Hamlet, the Harry Potter series) and bombs (Frankenstein, Jack Ryan). He needs the right vehicle to channel his sublime hamminess. After re-establishing himself as a good actor earlier this year with Dunkirk, Branagh’s back in the director’s chair and the leading role in Murder on the Orient Express. Fortunately, he’s crafted a minor but enjoyable flick that suits his...enthusiastic style.
Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, a brilliant detective obsessed with order and logic. His first scene shows him measuring hard-boiled eggs, so we know he has an eye for details. Poirot boards a train with an assortment of shady people, played by a legion of well-known character actors. Before Poirot can get to comfortable and read his Charles Dickens book (one of the film’s few amusing recurring gags), he’s roped into a murder mystery that tests the limits of his abilities.
Express, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, is the inspiration for countless books and films. People have borrowed from it, stolen from it, and rearranged it. In 2017, it’s hard to make the material seem fresh. And Express’s main failure is a lack of newness. But it compensates for that through its solid execution.
As a director, Branagh lacks any subtlety. I wouldn’t be surprised if he constructed his sets with ten cranes and fifteen different dolly tracks. He stuffs the film his overhead shots, bright colours, tight closeups, and “stylish” angles. He’s particularly fond of long tracking shots which show characters walking from one end of the train to the other. A lot of these flourishes are distracting, drawing more attention of the cinematographer’s skill than the emotion of a scene. Branagh is guilty of “over-directing” at times. He’s fills the movie with so many quirky shots you get the impression he’s trying to keep himself engaged.
But for the most part, the direction is enjoyable. It’s fast-moving, kinetic, and visually interesting. It pulls off the impressive feat of making a confined space (a train) seem dynamic for its two-hour runtime.
The main attraction for this movie, of course, is the acting. Branagh is delightfully cheesy as Poirot. His French accent sometimes reaches Pepe Le Pew-levels and his moustache is beyond absurd, but he’s consistently entertaining. He makes Poirot intelligent and engaging without turning him into a superpowered badass (like Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes).
Branagh stacked the cast with reliable actors who do fine work. Michelle Pfeiffer has the juiciest role and she relishes every over-the-top moment. Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, and Judi Dench do serviceable, if unremarkable work. Josh Gad is out of his depth surrounded by all this talent, but he doesn’t embarrass himself too badly. And while the public perception of Johnny Depp has...cooled somewhat over the years, his turn here as a despicable villain shows glimpses of the talented actor the world fell in love with decades ago.
Express isn’t an exceptional movie and it’s certainly not the definitive adaptation of Christie’s novel. But it’s an entertaining mystery populated with actors who could play these roles in their sleep. It’s solid. Sometimes, that’s enough.