Murder on the Orient Express




Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is one of the prolific author’s most acclaimed and densely plotted crime stories and has had a few screen adaptations in the past.  Kenneth Branagh now brings a new take on the classic tale in which he stars as Poirot and also directs.  He needed to climb out of the shadow cast by the Sidney Lumet 1974 film that saw Albert Finney Oscar-nominated for his Belgian sleuth character and also the television episode resulting in a BAFTA nomination in 1991 for David Suchet. Did he manage it?  Yes and no — but (for me) primarily yes indeed.


This handsome production was sumptuously shot on 65mm Panavision cameras (of which there are only four available globally) and is a feast for the eye.  Branagh shot his last three movies on 35mm film, (a purist, he abjures digital in favor of celluloid) and the genuinely gorgeous sweeping alpine panoramas, rich interiors and atmospheric overhead shots are a visual joy.  He faced a significant challenge with the epic five minute Steadicam closing shot incorporating the entire cast but it was handled beautifully.  


Obviously, when remaking a well known story that relies on the final twist to reveal all, the film maker must somehow recalibrate the story without altering its core but making it fresh for both seasoned viewers and ‘newbies’ to the tale.  This version based on a script by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049) does manage to imbue the story with some new slants but it is Branagh’s depiction of Poirot that really moves it away from previous adaptations.


In this telling, we open in Jerusalem in 1934 where Poirot flamboyantly solves a theft mystery at the Wailing Wall.  We then join him on a sail to Istanbul where he embarks on the Orient Express to travel to Calais en route to England.  When an avalanche derails the train high in the mountains and they are snowed in, a rescue team must reach them to dig out the engine and get them on their way, but during this hiatus, a grisly murder occurs in the first class carriage and clearly the killer can only be among the other 12 first class passengers.  And what a star-studded array of stranded stars we have here. 

Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is a dubious art dealer with gangster links travelling with his much put-upon secretary (Josh Gad) and highly reserved valet (Derek Jacobi).  They travel with an imperious scowling Princess (Judi Dench), her self-effacing assistant (Olivia Colman), a racist Austrian academic (Willem Dafoe), a guilt-ridden missionary (Penelope Cruz), a pert British governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr), a Hungarian Count travelling on a diplomatic passport (Sergei Polunin) and his reclusive, drug-addicted wife (Lucy Boynton), a car salesman with a dark past (Manuel Garcia Rulfo) and a brash husband-hunting blonde widow (Michelle Pfeiffer, continuing her career resurgence).


Poirot’s trademark is his much-twirled moustache.  In fact in the first chapter of her book, Christie describes him as “a little man with enormous moustaches” and Branagh has certainly taken her at her word.  Forget the waxed, modest swiggles of hair that adorned the upper lips of Finney and Suchet, this is a handlebar moustache for the ages. It is also a more revelatory Poirot here.  A tortured perfectionist obsessed with symmetry and balance.  A control freak who cannot abide imperfection.  


Is this a flawless production?  No.


It runs slightly out of steam in the second half when some sidebar scenes are introduced such as an unnecessary chase on a trestle bridge involving gunplay and some suspect interviews conducted outside the train for no logical reason.  There are a couple of minor points upon which one could carp but none of this intruded sufficiently to diminish my enjoyment of the film.


I read the book when young and have seen almost every screen version made, therefore knew not only the denouement but pretty much the full volley of back-stories and character motivations.  Despite this, I had a great time with this production and would happily watch it a second time.





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