In the Dark: Remade, classic whodunit is now more of a whydoit

Cast of Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

‘Murder on the Orient Express’

Starring: Kenneth Branaugh, Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by: Kenneth Branaugh

Rated: PG-13

Unfair as it may be, there will be comparisons between this version of the Agatha Christie novel and the 1974 adaptation that was an immensely satisfying piece of entertainment. With a distance of over 30 years between the two films, I have no quibble with the idea of a redo. But the actual redo is a different story — literally.

Christie’s beloved detective, the very fastidious Belgian Hercule Poirot, is the central character, and in the hands of Albert Finney, the ’74 version made him slightly more of a character. His accent was Vaudeville camp when it could be understood and his slicked down hair and moustache gave off a black patent sheen as if it had been polished to a high gloss.

Branaugh, who directs and stars in this version, takes the character much more seriously, particularly toward the end when his moral character is shaken to its core. He’s true to the detective, but not nearly as creatively as Finney.

Poirot boards the Orient Express that runs from Istanbul to Calais and meets the cast of characters played here by Michelle Pfeiffer as a man-hunting widow, Judi Dench as Russian noblewoman, Johnny Depp as an underhanded art dealer, Daisy Ridley as an English governess, William Dafoe as a scholar, and Penelope Cruz as a missionary. There are 12 in all, and its immediately evident something is going on.

When Depp’s character is found murdered in his berth, the game’s afoot with Poirot doing what he does best as “the world’s greatest detective.” Herein lies my first complaint — why change Christie’s story. It stands alone just fine, giving you all you need to know in a newspaper montage in the opening credits. Here these expository clues are dropped clumsily into early conversations, a change only to separate this from the earlier version. So overt are these hints, the characters might have well just broken the fourth wall and winked directly into the camera.

As great as this cast is, it simply is no match for Sidney Lumet’s which included Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman and John Gielgud. Lumet let his actors play to their strengths as if they were all in on the mystery and the fun.

Here, Michael Green’s dialog is as heavy as the acting. No winks at the camera, just full on earnestness as the characters chew their way around some weighty lines that stink of the kind heard on a daytime soap opera. And the fatal sin: too many reveals that can lead you toward solving this crime before Poirot gets the chance.

About halfway through, my mother leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You know you can only spend one night on the Orient Express now.” Even one night with Branaugh and his train full of potential murderers might be too much of a crime for moi.

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