Rule of thumb: Never be too quick to scoff at "the same old same old."
It's true that it will surprise no one that Kenneth Branagh's new "Murder on the Orient Express" is an entertaining, star-packed version of one of Agatha Christie's most famous suspect-filled mysteries. What they may not know is that Branagh has sneakingly played a little trick on Christie's best-selling ghost which is, no doubt, causing her to whirl around in her grave.
She was, in life, among the least politically correct of privileged bigots. (Her original title for a famous book was "Ten Little N-words." She didn't use the shorthand version, though.) When the Anti-Defamation League complained about the treatment of Jews in her novels, her U.S. publishers were given permission to delete anything in her books that was too anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.
Branagh, to put it mildly, is not only turning a blind eye to Christie's snobbery-plus whenever possible, he is turning it on its head. Not only is there a black actor here Christie never imagined -- Leslie Odom Jr. -- but his character is involved in a secret interracial romance as a major plot point.
And most rollicking of all, Branagh's mischief leads him to begin the whole film with some multi-cultural shenanigans at the wailing wall in Jerusalem. Take that Dame Agatha. Branagh's joke is definitely on her.
But it's also on Albert Finney too, if you ask me. In big, gaudy sure things that Finney liked for their paycheck, he was as shameless a ham as anyone other than Hormel and Oscar Mayer ever put on this earth. Finney's version of Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot was a killjoy whose head is perpetually cocked to the right as if he'd slept on it wrong the night before. God only knows where his accent came from.
Branagh's joke on Finney is to multiply his mustache 10-fold into a full handlebar monstrosity to which a small, "soul-patch" goatee has been attached for punctuation. His look is outrageous. On top of that, Branagh's personality as Poirot is that of a kindly old guy willing to let life have its occasional surprises. If I had to meet up with one of these Poirots in life, I'd take Branagh's over Finney's in a heartbeat.
I wouldn't say it makes for better cinematic portraiture, but hey.
That being said, Sidney Lumet's 1974 version of Christie's ancient tale was one of the greatest all-star films of the '70's if not THE greatest -- Finney, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sir John Gielgud, Richard Widmark, Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bissett, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Michael York and Jean-Pierre Cassel. Old Hollywood Meets Old Vic Meets The Cannes Film Festival. Wall to wall grandees of the trade.
Branagh's new bunch, including Branagh himself, is a gifted B-team: Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Odom.
They're all reasonably engaging while the famous Belgian detective is investigating everyone aboard the snowbound train on which its most famous gangster was murdered in his sleep.
As all the biographies of possible killers pile up and motives along with them, things do slow down before you get to Christie's ending which still has its impact.
The greatest moment, by far, of Lumet's original was Lumet's own joke on Christie's bigotry and the one that won Ingrid Bergman a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. As a former missionary, she purses her lips hilariously, while telling Poirot about her dedication to bring religion to all "the little brown babies." (Who knew that Bergman could be that outrageously funny?) Cruz doesn't even attempt that kind of humor in the part.
But if you have to dive into one of these much-loved mysteries to try to get a new series started (yes, a sequel is threatened in its final moments), it wasn't a bad idea to have a wry and sweet-natured trickster like Branagh involved.
Few 20th century British monsters of the bestseller list were ever less politically correct than Christie (though Roald Dahl came close.) I think a little mischief is just the thing to get her into the 21st century with precious little damage.
"Murder on the Orient Express"
3 stars (out of four)
Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Leslie Odom Jr. in Branagh's new adaptation of Agatha Christie's classic mystery that previously became a classic all-star movie in 1974, PG-13 for violence and dramatic elements. 114 minutes.