I suspect, with absolutely nothing to back it up besides anecdotal data and hunches, that Murder on the Orient Express, from 1934, is Agatha Christie's best-known mystery novel; or at least the best-known title to one of her mystery novels, which is the same thing as far as film producers go. And yet here we are, in the year of our Lord 2017, to find only the second English-language feature film adaptation of the book, 43 years after an Oscar-winning version written by Paul Dehn and directed by Sidney Lumet (there are a couple of TV versions in there as well). For comparison's sake, in the 44 years between 1945 and 1989, there were four different features made, under different titles, out of Christie's 1939 book And Then There Were None.*

Why things changed now, I can't begin to say; I cannot fathom that there might have been an upswing in Christie fandom at some point in recent decades. But no matter. The combined powers of producers Simon Kinberg, Mark Gordon, and Ridley Scott decided that the world needed a new Murder on the Orient Express, and Michael Green wrote its screenplay (not one single official credit in his filmography suggests he'd be a natural fit for the job), and Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in it, and now it's out for us to all appreciate, or at least permit to flash in front of our eyes for slightly less than two hours, if that's what we prefer.

The most surprising thing about Murder on the Orient Express is that it's not more openly terrible. My feelings about Branagh the director are none too charitable; I think that he's arguably not made a single "good" film since divorcing Emma Thompson in 1995, with 1996's Hamlet and 2007's Sleuth coming the closest, in that order. And I also think that he's criminally indulgent towards Branagh the actor, who can sometimes be very excellent, even in productions that don't earn it (e.g. My Week with Marilyn), but tends to become a histrionic, showboating asshole the minute that he's let off his lead. Combine that with the fact that he's playing Christie's beloved Hercule Poirot, a take on the World's Greatest Detective trope marked out chiefly by being a cartoonish exaggeration of Belgian quirks as written by an Englishwoman, and there seemed to be little room for any hope at all. When Branagh elects to introduce himself in a flashy "first you will be deprived of seeing my face - but here it is!" teasing gesture, which you have hopefully forgotten was very like how he introduced himself in the dreadful 2014 Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - his worst work on both sides of the camera - it mostly just confirms the feeling that we'd better strap in for a worst-case scenario.

Rejoice, then, that Murder on the Orient Express is merely forgettable in long stretches between short patches of delight. The book, if you've somehow managed to avoid all of the cultural osmosis, is a locked room mystery set aboard the most legendarily luxurious train in the history of rail travel: shifty American conman-type Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp; "cameoing", I almost wrote, except that most everybody who isn't Branagh is ultimately cameoing - some of them are just longer cameos than others), the night after he futilely asks Poirot to serve as bodyguard, is found stabbed to death in his first-class compartment, while the Orient Express hangs precariously over a chasm on a wooden bridge, caught by inclement weather. With nothing to do and a dead body right there, Poirot - already having had his vacation plans ruined by the same call that put him on the train in the first place - irritably agrees to figure out whodunnit, out of the 12 possible suspects. Cue 12 elusive, slippery conversations with several shady figures played by famous and less-famous people, as Poirot finds to his annoyed dismay that everybody seems to have had some potential reason and opportunity for doing the deed.

The same routine as the 1974 film, then - the same routine as the book, but the big difference is that this all works lovely as prose. Onscreen, it's hard not to notice that you're spending a whole feature film watching interviews, and only the pleasure of the famous faces does much to give any real sparkle to the material. For my money, the 1974 cast bests this version, though not by much: Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, and Michelle Pfeiffer is a pretty bulletproof starting list. In practice, not all performances are created equal, nor are all roles (Jacobi gets virtually nothing to do), and out of the many familiar faces larding up the ensemble here, I'd be hard pressed to say that I was really impressed by anybody other than Dafoe (and Pfeiffer, though her good material is all severely backloaded).

The point remains, this is talky, largely uncinematic material. In 1974, Lumet fought this by going hard for frivolous charm, and I think it worked, more or less. Branagh is not averse to frivolity, keeping virtually all of it for himself; his Poirot isn't really Christie's Poirot, but as a prickly OCD sufferer whose boyish whimsy keeps running against a deep-set irritability, he's a pretty fine comic figure. But his main strategies as a director are heavily romantic nostalgia, and an addition to flourishes with the camera that turn the Orient Express into something of a jungle gym, where you can peer into the action from nearly any angle, no matter how high or how acute. It's certainly varied, if never particularly effective, or coherent - some shots that use cut-glass panes to throw the cast into kaleidoscopic disarray, for example, seem genuinely smart and creative visuals, until the filmmakers bring them back in a later scene where they have no discernible function whatsoever.

But anyhow, when he and cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos aren't busy leering and looming with the camera, they're using it to make a deeply classical, elegant film. Murder on the Orient Express is the latest film in the new mini-fad of digging out 65mm cameras to make films in that lavish physical format, and the results pay off, even in digital projection: the scale of the shots, the richness of the colors, the complexity of the lighting, are all just better. It's a lush movie, and that lushness goes hand-in-hand with its utter sincerity about being an old-fashioned mystery story and filmed entertainment. Whatever else is true, the filmmakers adore Christie without irony, and that comes through even despite their alterations, most of which are designed to artificially re-imagine the work as a liberal statement of racial harmony that Christie, I think, would have barely been able to imagine.

Then there are the changes that fucking ruin everything, not just in reference to Christie, but within the film itself. At a certain point, around halfway through, it becomes clear that that this isn't just a fun lark or puzzle. This is meant to be a very serious, heavy movie, and Poirot is meant to be a complicated, layered, philosophical character. The latter is a simply awful, unsupportable development, the former could, in theory, have worked out, though in execution it fails. The solution scene in this story has always struck me as absurdly overdone, but Branagh accentuates the sequence's flaws with some badly mishandled flashbacks and a tone of such miserable solemnity that it's hard not to laugh at it.

Honestly, that's the part that killed it: based on the lavish visuals and Branagh's cheekily corny performance and the general sense of humor, I was prepared to give Murder on the Orient Express a mild passing grade. But the solution scene is just too terrible for that, and it's too symptomatic of the film's worst habit of being very goddamn serious about things better treated as simple genre fare. Basically, the film (after a promising start) gleefully plunges right up its own ass, just like Kenneth Branagh pictures are wont to do, and after it does that, it stops being any fun at all. And if a closed room murder mystery can't be fun, then it has no reason for being at all.

*My standard practice would be to refer to this book by its original UK publication title, not the title later given to it by its first U.S. publisher, but in this case I'll make what I think is a very justifiable exception.