“Murder on the Orient Express”

Susan Granger’s review of “Murder on the Orient Express” (20th Century Fox)

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Kenneth Branagh’s remake derails almost from the get-go, long before the snow-bound, stranded strangers begin to suspect one another of murder.

Prior to the steam-engine chugging out of the station in the mid-1930s, we’re introduced to Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) with his ridiculous, salt ‘n’ peppery mustache. Author Agatha Christie described Poirot’s facial adornment as having a “tortured splendor,” part of what throws and provokes people. Throughout the film, it’s a major distraction.

Shortly after leaving Istanbul, the corpse of Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an American art dealer, is found in his berth with multiple stab wounds. And the culprit is obviously still aboard.

While an avalanche forces the legendary luxury train to stop on a particularly precarious trestle, Poirot interviews all the passengers with access to Ratchett’s compartment.

There’s Rastchett’s assistant (Josh Gad) and valet (Derek Jacobi), the Doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), the Widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Missionary (Penelope Cruz), the Governess (Daisy Ridley), the Professor (Willem Dafoe), and the Princess (Judi Dench), traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman).

Back in 1974, director Sidney Lumet cast Albert Finney as Poirot, assembling an all-star cast that included Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

In this new version, screenwriter Michael Green has made few changes, the most obvious being a new opening scene in Jerusalem, introducing idiosyncratic Poirot, obsessing over two perfectly balanced soft-boiled eggs, and reconfiguring Dr. Arbuthnot as African-American.

But the connection remains the same: all the passengers had reason to loathe Ratchett, the gangster who kidnapped and killed three year-old Daisy Armstrong – a pivotal plot point that Agatha Christie lifted from the 1932 abduction of Anne and Charles Lindbergh’s baby.

Perhaps the most obvious problem in this remake is Kenneth Branagh’s self-indulgent casting of himself as prissy Poirot and his increasingly annoying overhead shots.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a tiresome, forlorn 5, a forgettable whodunit.

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