The story opens with an Orientalist shot of between-the-wars Jerusalem, at the Wailing Wall. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), Agatha Christie’s legendary Belgian detective, in broad daylight, after solving a local problem, walks away and steps in a mountainous mound of camel-poo. You might think it passing strange that a man of his phenomenal powers of observation didn’t see it right in front of him, but it was just a setup for a lame joke – and who wants to be a nit-picking critic anyway? Despite having read the novel ages ago and seen the first movie adaptation of it (with Albert Finney as Poirot and a stellar cast that included John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery), I could not at first remember the outcome… until the decisive moment when the victim’s body, stabbed to death, was shown. It came back to me in an instant and, from that moment the ‘who dunnit’ factor played no part. So what is there left? Branagh, despite a ridiculous moustache that invades his whole face (it is as though he feared he could find no other way to stamp his individuality on the role), is an excellent Poirot, with a back-story of lost love that never goes anywhere (people rave about David Suchet in the part, but my fave was Peter Ustinov.) The glossy visuals are beautifully escapist – who doesn’t want to recall a period when train travel was real travel? – but the plot itself is the problem. To true devotees of the murder mystery, it is just a little bit beyond plausibility. Christie wrote numerous brilliantly clever Poirot/Miss Marple novels, so it seems a shame that this, possibly her most contrived, is the one that has found precedence. Branagh, as director, manages to bring it home with a high-minded moral challenge to us, demanding that we question what is right and what is wrong. It’s a conclusion that adds some weight to a classy but forgettable frippery.
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