Kenneth Branagh earned himself a lot of brownie points for the sublime Belfast, but quickly squanders most of them in this, his second Agatha Christie adaptation. While it’s a definite improvement on his previous attempt, Murder on the Orient Express (which suffered from a bad case of too many actors in cameo roles), it still struggles to escape from the suffocating confines of the genre.
Mind you, it opens with a totally unexpected sequence set in the First World War, where we meet a digitally de-aged Poirot as a solider in the trenches, already flexing his powers of deduction. And then we are offered an origin story for that famous moustache. Interesting…
But all too soon, the action has moved on to 1937 and more familiar territory. Poirot is in a nightclub, fussing over some desserts, listening to blues singer Salome Otterburn (Sophie Okonedo) and watching as a certain Simon Doyle indulges in some rather dirty dancing with his fiancée, Jacqueline de Belfort (Emma McKey). The fact that Doyle is played by the recently disgraced Armie Hammer is, um, awkward, to say the least (and when I reflect that the previous film had a pivotal role for Johnny Depp, it makes me wonder is there isn’t some kind of ‘Curse of the Christies’ going on here).
Anyway, six weeks later, Doyle is climbing aboard a cruise ship in Egypt with his new bride… Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot). Things get even more uncomfortable when Jacqueline arrives and spends her time glaring balefully at the newly weds over the lobster and fizzy wine. Honestly, if looks could kill!
Okay, this is Christie territory, so it’s a hardly a spoiler to say that somebody winds up murdered, which puts a proper crimp on the festivities. The perpetrator could be any of the passengers, all of them played by well know faces: Annette Bening, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Russell Brand, Letitia Wright. Place your bets, folks – unless, like me, you saw the 1978 version or have read the book, and already know whodunnit.
Which, I must confess, spoils it somewhat.
It’s all handsomely done and this time around there’s enough focus on the various players to make it feel that they’re more than just cardboard cutouts. Egypt is lovingly recreated in CGI and the shameful opulence of the era is shown in unflinching detail. Here is an age where somebody can throw the contents of a champagne glass into the Nile and declare ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’ while starving people watch in silence from the river bank.
Okay, it was a different time, but at the end of the day, this feels hopelessly antiquated and badly in need of updating. Diehard Christie fans will doubtless tell themselves that Branagh has done his subject proud, and yes, perhaps he has – but I for one will be in no great hurry to see another Poirot movie. Unless, that is, it can offer something more unexpected than an origin story for some facial hair.