by Benjamín Harguindey
Kenneth Branagh heads a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s seminal whodunit “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934), most famously adapted by Sidney Lumet in the 1974 classic. Branagh both directs and stars as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, second only to Sherlock Holmes. How does the movie compare to its fabled heritage?
The worst and best you can say about it is that it doesn’t take the story anywhere new. That’s good in the sense that, hey, you get to enjoy a good old fashioned whodunit. When was the last time you saw one venture anywhere outside Hallmark Channel? It’s also lame in that there’s little reason to watch it over the 1974 version. It doesn’t really best it on any count, except for all its technological updates, which in turn begs the question why would you want to mar your period piece with CGI? Look at all those second unit landscape shots: even the train is CG.
As Poirot, Branagh sidesteps obvious comparisons to the landmark performances of Albert Finney – the star of the 1974 version – or David Suchet, who has played Poirot in quite literally everything (yup, all 33 novels, and then some) in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Branagh takes Poirot in a slightly different direction, retaining the cordial, prissy personality but giving him shades of mania and tortured soul. A running gag from the books is that Poirot is always described as “funny” and “peculiar”, and Branagh’s performance is riddled with such little nuances that turn the character into a scene-stealer.
That’s kind of a double-edged blade though, because none of the other characters – your usual roster of upper class Bohemians and miscreants – ever gets as much detail or attention as Poirot himself, who pretty much hogs the whole movie. This would be a problem even if Branagh himself wasn’t directing it. As it is, the movie boasts a handsome star-studded cast that is given little to say or do except riff off Branagh’s Poirot.
The cast includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and Daisy Ridley, each playing what is essentially a stereotype and roughly corresponding to another star from the 1974 version. The earlier version enjoyed a different kind of star, of a glamorous by-gone era by ’70s standards (Lauren Baccall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, etc), aiding the nostalgic motif of the movie. The newer version resorts to more current-day celebrities and only provides a couple of veteran A-listers, chiefly Judi Dench and Derek Jakobi. They have just the presence, but are wasted in little more than bit parts.
Murder most foul is committed aboard the Orient Express, the luxury train line connecting Istanbul and Calais, while coincidentally an avalanche derails the train temporarily. The manager Bouc, an old friend of Poirot’s, insists that the detective quickly solve the case before the train makes it to the nearest station and the inept police resort to an easy scapegoat. Bouc convinces Poirot by appealing to his sense of social justice, claiming a minority will probably take the blame, such as the black Dr. Arbuthnot or the Latino salesman Marquez. This opens a rather novel angle on period-era racism which the movie never really follows up.
The rest of the movie consists essentially of a series of vignettes in which Poirot interviews the dozen suspect passengers, some of them in hasty cut-up montages, others in scenes that are given proper dramatic unity. Every now and then there’s a burst of action that, really, when you think about it, is of no consequence whatsoever: it’s never brought up again, nor does it affect the plot in any way. You can excuse this as the need to sell the movie with glimpses of action in the trailer; in any case we end up getting a proper, pretty straightforward chamber-room whodunit, and not the costumed action treatment Guy Ritchie invariably gives to period material.
What the movie perhaps needs was a more understated quality. Branagh, who once upon a time directed Shakespeare and now headlines over the top live-action Disney, likes his stories grandiose and operatic – something Christie’s novels most certainly were not. The attempts at injecting Murder on the Orient Express with such megalomania often work against the restrained, tense nature of the story and its characters. Think of another closed-doors whodunit from recent years, The Hateful Eight (2015) – which, coincidentally, was also shot in 65 mm. Both movies are about detecting a culprit, and even share a similar plot twist. If the formula worked best in Tarantino’s flick was because it was about detecting a would-be killer rather than a killer per se; the stakes were vivid and followed a real sense of menace. In “Orient Express” there’s no such tension: we suspect justice has been served a little too early in the movie.
But let’s judge the movie less for how it should’ve been perfected and more for what it accomplishes. You’re gonna get exactly what you paid for: a fun nostalgia trip across familiar territory in the company of a handsome cast as you rarely see lined up anymore. It’s charming, exotic and overall placid.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).