In cinema, as elsewhere, there can be too much of a good thing. Quick: Do you remember the film several years back that starred Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, and Nicole Kidman, among others? If you recall that it was Nine, the director Rob Marshall’s musical follow-up to his Academy Award–winning Chicago, well good on you. I can scarcely summon any memory of the film myself.
The director Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express labors under the same delusion that cinematic quality is arithmetical: Dench and Cruz are both here again, as are Branagh himself, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, and God knows how many others who are currently skipping my mind. If movies truly were math, this would be a masterpiece.
But they aren’t, and it’s not. Branagh’s retelling of the classic Agatha Christie tale is visually sumptuous yet otherwise inert, a series of what are essentially cameos by performers far too gifted to waste their time like this. There should be a law against casting Judi Dench in a film and then giving her virtually nothing to do.
The plot is familiar, even to those who have neither read the novel nor seen Sidney Lumet’s famous 1974 adaptation starring Albert Finney: The year is 1935, and 13 apparent strangers are sharing a carriage on a train from Istanbul to Calais. One of them is murdered in his cabin with a dozen stab wounds, and the rest are trapped on the train by a snowdrift that has blocked the tracks. Who among them is the killer? Fortunately, among them is also Hercule Poirot (Branagh), and he will solve the mystery because that is what he does.