After the 1934 novel, which is among the most popular of all Agatha Christie murder mysteries, followed by the successful 1974 Albert Finney film (every bit as enjoyable today as it was forty-three years ago) the issue of whodunit in the new Kenneth Branagh directed Murder on the Orient Express has to be the worst-kept secret of movie history. At least, that’s what you’d think.
But in the way that some can neither name the four Beatles nor pick Paul McCartney out in a crowd, there’s a whole generation or two that, if asked, have neither heard of the Christie classic nor of Christie herself. What might sound alarming – who has never heard of Agatha Christie? – in this case comes with an element of envy. Imagine going in to see a new version of Murder on the Orient Express with no prior knowledge. Now, that would be a treat.
During a ride on the luxurious Orient Express, a murder is committed. That morning, an avalanche of snow derails the engine, leaving the train and its occupants stranded, unable to move forward or back. Whoever committed the crime has to be among those still on the train, simplifying things in terms of suspects for Belgium detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) who just happened to be a passenger. Until a rescue crew can make it to the express and dig the engine out of the snow, Poirot has time on his hands. At the request of the train’s owner, the detective resolves to solve the mystery and reveal the murderer before the train becomes mobile.
“Why you?” demands suspect Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) when Poirot announces that he will lead an investigation. “My name is Hercule Poirot,” declares the Belgian, “And I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”
Branagh’s new, lavishly filmed, 70mm widescreen version doesn’t quite capture the romanticized feel of an elegant cinematic waltz, the kind that director Sidney Lumet brought to his ‘74 production, but the arc is the same, and so is the entertainment value. Where Christie’s story, like Lumet’s film, takes place within the confines of the carriages, Branagh occasionally expands things by drawing suspects out into the surrounding area. His Orient Express is less claustrophobic.
There are shots of characters walking across the carriage roofs, or sitting in chairs in the snow while the detective questions suspects. There’s even a dangerous chase across a bridge with a breathtaking drop where a moment of action is introduced in what is essentially an actionless mystery. Even the final confrontation, where all suspects are faced with Poirot’s observations and finger-pointing conclusion, takes place not in the privacy of a carriage, but outside, seated in front of a long table in the opening of a nearby mountain tunnel.
The film looks gorgeous. A nighttime, fairy-tale shot of the train dwarfed by the snow-capped, mountainous terrain, lit only by a bright, full moon above, becomes reminiscent of The Polar Express on its way to the north pole. Even the interiors, with the browns of the overnight sleeper carriages and the polished gold metal of the knobs and handles, add a richness to the overall visual splendor. The bigger the screen, the better. And if you’re lucky enough to be in an area where the 70mm print is showing, choose that venue. The film is not an epic, but director Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos take every given chance of showing a spectacular European scenic surrounding as the train makes its way from Istanbul to Paris, and it’s a pleasure to the eye.
In addition to shooting the scenery and making it look striking, Zambarloukos tries some other tricks. When the murder is discovered, the shot is an aerial view, looking directly down, as characters move from their sleeper, then along the hallway, then back to the squares of their rooms. It’s like looking down at the board during a game of Clue where pieces and suspects move from square to square after the discovery of a body at the bottom of the stairs. Flashbacks to an earlier crime scene are shot in black and white.
Branagh, with a comically gigantic, graying mustache that is practically a character in of itself, is center stage throughout. As for the ‘tache, it’s the kind that artists would draw on cartoon renditions of bald headed strongmen in vintage circus posters. There are moments of uncertainty that plague the detective in a way that Poirot is rarely presented. “If it were easy I would not be famous,” the detective states while accepting the challenges before him, but there are quieter moments when he appears surprisingly overwhelmed, and even doubts his ability to solve the murder.
Whether Branagh’s Belgian accent is any different to the language as spoken by a Parisian is difficult to say, but he does the continental his way, and it remains always humorously effective. Though, you might question the graying of that massive mustache. It’s doubtful that Christie’s prissy detective, as written, would ever allow himself to look aged without some grease and the blackening of things before appearing in public. But Branagh’s Poirot is different. He is neither timid nor dainty in his actions. His is a tall, broad-shouldered man who, when he loses his temper and shouts, can even appear borderline dangerous.
Oddly, the star-studded cast never quite make their mark in the way the same characters were played in Lumet’s ‘74 version. They’re all globally known actors – Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench to name a few – but their impact is diminished, overshadowed by Branagh’s dominating presence as Poirot. Part of that has to do with how each of the suspects are interviewed. Where both the book and Lumet’s ‘74 film had uninterrupted, individual scenes of interrogations, this new adaptation jumps from interview to interview at a snappy pace, often more like a montage of moments than full, revealing conversations. This kind of editing, born of the need to keep the low attention span of a present-day audience engaged, may give an exciting visual edge to what is really people talking in a room, but it clouds the information required to know what Poirot is learning while lessening the impact of the suspect’s presence. Before you’ve taken in what has been admitted, you’re already somewhere else with another character.
But while comparisons with earlier productions are going to be inevitable in such a piece as famous as this, there’s no doubting what’s effectively achieved in this update. The story remains wonderfully old-fashioned, and the surprise for those who never read and had no clue this was even a remake, the outcome in this lushly filmed new adaptation will surprise. But do yourself and your friends a favor. Tell no one who did it, why, or how. Don’t even mention the victim. That would also be a crime.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 114 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)