There have been quite a few adaptations of author Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, but none as lavish and transportive as director Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 iteration. The auteur demonstrates a distinct flair for making the ordinary qualities of Christie’s well-known text seem extraordinary. However, despite dripping with golden-era-Hollywood appeal, and a ferociously talented ensemble, the picture comes up slightly short – though it’s passably entertaining.
Hercule Poirot (Branagh, in a role he was born to play) is a world-famous detective, known for his OCD-fueled eccentricities, perfectionist ways and keen ability to solve unsolvable crimes. How do we know this? It’s not only shown through the opening scene at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, but it’s also reiterated to us by at least two other characters. Bouncing from one case to another, our beloved detective is tired and ready for a vacation. Only that will have to wait once duty calls for him to travel to London in a hurry. He boards the Orient Express, a first-class luxury train on its maiden voyage, and meets a slew of shifty passengers: governess Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), businessman Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), lawyer Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), “antiquities dealer” Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp), Rachett’s valet Mr. Masterman (Derek Jacobi), violent Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his famous wife Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boyton), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), her assistant Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Coleman), professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) and seductive Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer). Most of the civilities cease before they make it to their destination when an avalanche stops the train in its tracks and a murder of one of the passengers is discovered. It’s now Poirot’s time to shine, unlocking the mystery of the killer’s identity.
Screenwriter Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) does what he can to refresh the material, given the fact the Christie estate doesn’t allow sweeping changes to be made. Though it’s set in 1934, the hush-hush romance between Miss Debenham and Dr. Arbuthnot is “modernized,” envisioned here as a taboo interracial relationship. Poirot’s reaction is progressive for the era – “woke,” you could say. When the steam from the ensuing whodunit dies out, the narrative seamlessly shifts tracks, morphing into a tale about gray areas of moral turpitude. Things aren’t always black and white or right and wrong, as Poirot states more than a few times. Granted it’s been decades since I read this novel, but Green heartens this aspect, bringing it into the foreground with each of the characters. There also seems to be more of an obvious parallel drawn between the train’s status and that of our hero’s quest/ inner-conflict.
Aesthetically speaking, Branagh imbues this with his signature stylish panache. His use of the camera speaks subtleties to augment the narrative. The auteur uses the “God’s eye” perspective with the camera for an extended take when Poirot (the person judging like God would) surveys the scene of the crime. He uses the technique again later when he examines the dead, bloody body still in the cabin. When Poirot addresses the remaining passengers and staff of the crime, the camera captures refracted images of the suspects through the glass that decorates in the main cabin. This speaks to the furtive suspects’ potential fractured dualities. Branagh puts a fine point on these observations with dialogue like Hubbard’s feeling “like a prisoner,” or Hardman’s “take my oath.” Mick Audsley’s crisp edits also prove crucial in these segments. They keep momentum moving – as much as it can – while the train is stopped. Jim Clay’s rich production design, coupled with Haris Zambarloukos’s sparkling cinematography and Alexandra Byrne’s opulent costumes, make the scenery lush. Plus, there’s a clever visual allusion to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
All this said, the artifice doesn’t necessarily help matters when the source material gets bogged down or overloaded. Lulls appear and last for too long. Tossing in an action sequence (like one character’s foiled attempt at escape) doesn’t help matters. It just feels like excess – if you can believe it, more excessive than Poirot’s magnificent mustache. Listen, if all you asked for was to leave the station and get your ticket punched (metaphorically speaking, of course), then Branagh delivers that train on time.
3.5 out of 5
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens on November 10. And if it’s playing in 70mm near you, treat yourself to that format.