Murder on the Orient Express
With 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, and the longest running West End play to her name, Dame Agatha Christie isn’t called the Queen of Crime for nothing. One of the most well known and loved of her novels is Murder on the Orient Express, starring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A story known for its intricate cast of characters and ending, it has been adapted several times. Once in Christie’s lifetime by Sidney Lumet in 1974 starring Albert Finney; Christie enjoyed the film but found Finney’s moustache to be quite lacking. There was a made for TV movie in 2001 with Alfred Molina in the central role which attempted to update the tale to the then present day and did not work very well.
Of course the most famous, and admired, actor to portray the role of Poirot is David Suchet who played him for ITV from 1989 to 2013, and in 2010 an adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with him aired, but it was with mixed results. To hear that Kenneth Branagh would not only be directing a new film version but also starring in it as the moustachioed investigator, there was a great deal of anticipation and apprehension floating around. Anticipation because if there’s one thing Branagh can do without fault it is assemble one heck of a cast, and apprehension because he can also go a little overblown, something which served him well in a few of his Shakespeare adaptations but might be too much in a close-quarters drama.
Plus, what is there really to be done with the story that hasn’t been done before? The result is a curious affair; at times everything comes together really well, but in others it feels very unnecessary. The bottom line is this: does this movie need to exist? No. Is it still an enjoyable watch that I would recommend? Yes, actually, but not without its issues. Its premise revolves around renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) who has just finished a case and is hoping for a long-overdue rest. While travelling on the famed Orient Express he finds himself caught up in the murder of one of the passengers, but how can one solve a mystery when everyone around him is lying?
The biggest thing that the movie has going for it is the visuals. Branagh shot on 65mm film stock and there is a certain feel of old Hollywood to it, in particular the sweeping shots. Then there is the matter of getting the most out of such a confined location as a train, and the use of creative angles and tracking shots really adds something dynamic to sequences that could just have easily been a series of static shots, particularly in the scenes where Poirot interviews each suspect. Early on when we are introduced to the train - just as important as any of the characters - point is made of relishing and detailing in all of the decadent and decorative elements of the location, and there is something very pleasant about that.
A worry going into a book adaptation is the changes that are inevitably made. No author is spared this, but in the case of mystery stories there is a risk of toppling the delicately placed elements of suspects, motives, and clues. None of the changes here are too drastic, and in a few cases add an extra flavour and allow for a more diverse cast than the story traditionally uses, which is good. The addition of a sort of prologue in Jerusalem introducing Poirot and his methods is actually an addition which I like very much, blasphemous damage to the Wailing Wall aside; it allows us to get acquainted with Branagh’s portrayal before the main thrust of the story. As for Branagh’s Poirot, I would say he does a perfectly fine job of it. He doesn’t embody the character and bring him to life in the way that David Suchet did, but he is fun to watch and never veers into an over the top portrayal even if sometimes the accent sounds a little off. Poirot’s signature meticulousness and precision is also now full-on OCD, which both does and does not work as it frames Poirot’s worldview, but also feels like an unnecessary detail.
But what is a mystery without its suspects? The cast line-up is solid, and when together there are some wonderful moments that both really sell the tension and take on a whole new light when you know the actual identity of the killer. Individually, however, some get to shine a little brighter than others; an unfortunate side effect of many characters and limited screen time. Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr.. and especially Michelle Pfeiffer do very good work here. Josh Gad also manages to be something of an unexpected dark horse, getting some really great scenes. Judi Dench and Olivia Colman are severely underused, as is Penelope Cruz in the role that, in 1974, won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar. There was also certain affability to Manuel Garcia-Rulfo that meant I wish we could have seen more of him, and Lucy Boynton had moments of dramatic meat that she never had enough time to sink her teeth into. Derek Jacobi and Willem Dafoe are just sort of there, as is Marwan Kenzari’s conductor Pierre Michel, who also lacks much of the integral presence that he has in the book. The real weak link in the cast, however, is international ballet star Sergei Polunin as the Count Andrenyi. A fantastic dancer he may be, but here he’s just angry, awkward, and largely silent, possibly because his few line deliveries are very stilted. Johnny Depp also probably gives his best performance for some time, but that isn’t necessarily saying much.
The core root of the problems in the film lay with the script by Michael Green, who recently has worked on Logan, Blade Runner 2049, and American Gods. Obviously things need to be simplified and condensed for the screen as opposed to a book, but certain conclusions are come to with little cause. Poirot doesn’t so much follow the details as say the answer because that’s what the movie requires. We’re never allowed to be properly absorbed and follow the mystery. There are moments of genuine wit, but at the same time there is also a problem of very clunky and cheesy dialogue; in particular without spoiling anything, there is another Poirot adventure referenced at the end that is so forced as to be laughable. Many will also find the pacing of the film hard to get on with, dragging things right down to a crawl not unlike a train caught in a snowdrift. There are attempts to spice things up with action scenes in that regard, but they feel very forced and unfitting for the story. Ultimately it really brings down all of the positive things throughout the movie.
Adapting a writer such as Christie you need something a lot sharper than what we get here. When it works, Murder on the Orient Express really works - it can be fun, interesting, and the cast do some great stuff but when it doesn’t, it is incredibly frustrating.
Last updated: 08/11/2017 11:00:06