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 on, Kenneth Branagh finds interesting ways to grease the wheels of this new take on the oft-filmed novel.
The plot, though, essentially remains the same. Legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) accompanies his stupendous moustache 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 (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, 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, and the Belgian bloodhound starts sniffing for clues. “If there was a murder, there was a murderer,” he cunningly surmises. “The murderer is with us and every one of you is a suspect.”
With nowhere to go – the train totters upon a towering trestle, derailed by a mini-avalanche – the scene is set for a handsomely old-fashioned whodunit full of larger-than-life characterisation, deep-buried secrets and devilish deduction. One by one Poirot interrogates his fellow travellers, sifting through their obfuscatory answers and a fistful of hard clues to piece together a startling revelation.
Shooting in 65mm, Branagh delivers all of the eye-saucering exteriors you’d expect, as mountaintops soar, sunlight glints at the end of tunnels and stations snuggle under a duvet of blue snow. More pleasing still is how well the format adapts to the cramped confines of the locomotive – elegant tracking shots navigate the space smoothly, the discovery of the murder scene is shot from above à la Hitchcock or De Palma, and close-ups perform keyhole surgery through every pore to scrutinise souls.
The script, by Blade Runner 2049’s Michael Green, throws in a few mischievous surprises and works hard to make Christie’s novel relevant to our troubled times as our protagonists’ dalliance with death brings out tensions and prejudices. Branagh’s take on Poirot allows room for fear, uncertainty and lost love, and duality is frequently suggested via reflections in glass and chrome – a technique overused in movies, no doubt, but one befitting such a classic narrative.
For all the fun, adventure and IMAX-sized images on display, there’s a whiff of Sunday-afternoon telly about Branagh’s reboot. Still, it can’t hurt that the on-form cast rivals the star power of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 ensemble, and a playful coda sets up a sequel. Might Poirot be pitching his wits against Avengers, Jedi and the Fast and the Furious family for years to come?