One raging snowstorm, one broken-down train, one bloody murder, a dozen or so suspects, and only one detective who could possibly make sense of it all.
The man for the job is Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective invented by the world’s most popular crime writer, Agatha Christie. Murder on the Orient Express is the fourth major film adaption (the first premiered in 1974 and there has since been a TV film and episode) of Christie’s book of the same name, published in 1934.
The 2017 adaption’s stellar cast of characters is what will lure audiences into cinemas. How can you miss a film starring Kenneth Branagh (as both actor and director), Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, and Michelle Pfeifer, amongst other big names? Fans of Broadchurch (like myself) will also be excited to see Olivia Colman make an appearance in this star-studded line-up.
The year is 1934. We find ourselves in Jerusalem, introduced to Poirot as he solves a separate crime to the primary one of the plot. For those who haven’t encountered Poirot before, it doesn’t take long to realise he’s a bit of a genius. After identifying the thief in Jerusalem, the detective decides he’s in desperate need of a rest. He sails to Istanbul, where he revels in the smell of freshly baked loaves of bread. There is no rest in store for Poirot, however. In Istanbul he encounters an old friend and, whilst catching up, the detective receives a call requesting his services. This old friend manages to get him a coach on the Orient Express, which will get him to Calais.
On the journey, Poirot passionately reads Dickens and eats cake. One of the passengers, sketchy American art dealer Ratchett (Depp), pleads for Poirot to protect him, as his twisted business has earned him some enemies. The detective refuses. Within 24 hours, an avalanche forces the train to a stop. Oh, and Ratchett is found stabbed to death.
Poirot quickly understands that the train carriage was locked, meaning just the passengers in that carriage are suspects: the beauty of a whodunit mystery. Thus begins the frantic search to identify which of the limited suspects could have committed such a crime.
Amongst the suspects is a Russian princess (Dench), her German maid (Colman), modest governess (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), an overly religious Spanish woman (Penelope Cruz), a widow, businessman, Russian dancer, and a German academic.
In an interview with Sarah Crompton for The Guardian, Branagh says: ‘I wanted you to feel the snow and smell the steam’ of the story’s setting. The CGI is mostly effective, although at times the train did echo The Polar Express, which wasn’t my favourite childhood film. The costume team excel. Red kimonos and fur coats make an appearance, as does Poirot’s signature walking stick.
Obviously, the 2017 adaptation offers more creative cinematography than the 1974 film or the TV series, for that matter. There is a distinctively modern feel, despite the story being set in the 1930s. We get overhead shots, the most prominent being the actual discovery of the murder. Branagh initially hides Depp’s dead body from us. The film makes use of blurred, sepia flashbacks. In multiple instances, the camerawork mirrors the setting, following the characters like a train follows its tracks. ‘Hop aboard!’ the film cries to viewers.
With a running time of 114 minutes, it is somewhat surprising that the murder doesn’t happen until about half an hour into the film. On the one hand, I get it. The 30-minute exposition means we can get to know Poirot and the rest of the characters. I’d be lying, however, if I said I wasn’t getting a bit impatient. It’s a murder mystery film, after all. You expect it to open with a murder.
Viewers who are familiar with the 20 previous portrayals of Poirot (including my personal favourite, David Suchet) know that Kenneth Branagh has a lot to live up to in playing this much-loved Belgian detective. As a fan of the TV series, I was pleased with Branagh’s portrayal. He displays the same strength of character, humour, frustrated outbursts, comical moustache (which, according to the actor, took the crew nine months to perfect), and Belgian twang in his accent. And, after a couple of false accusations along the way, he eventually solves the mystery, living up to his self-proclaimed title of ‘the world’s greatest detective’.
Branagh’s Poirot is both a blessing and curse for the film. The sleuth hogs the screen. There are parts where it feels less like a murder mystery and more like a character study. And while Branagh’s acting is of a high standard, this does mean the rest of the stellar cast are somewhat undervalued. This might be one of the only films in which Judi Dench gets minimal dialogue. And Johnny Depp, while he effectively portrays his crooked character, gets killed off before he can fully make the role his own. The acting is brilliant, when the actors are given a chance.
In book to film adaptations, the viewers hardest to please are the most devoted readers. I myself love Agatha Christie, and think nothing beats reading one of her mysteries with a fluffy blanket and a cup of tea. Very rarely will I say that the film version beats the book. While Branagh’s film adaptation didn’t outshine Christie’s novel, I can say that the director stays faithful to the majority of the original story. There are changes to a couple of characters, locations, and motivations, but the story is the same at its core.
The film ends with a hint that this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Branagh as Poirot. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile seems to be next in line for the big screen. If the following instalment’s ensemble is as impressive as this one is, I can only hope that the actors will get their well-deserved chance to shine.
Agatha Christie is a master storyteller. Those who criticise her simple sentences are missing her deep understanding of character and genius grasp of murder plots. While Kenneth Branagh brings us a faithful adaptation, it is Christie’s classic whodunit form which makes this movie worth watching.
Review by Alice Kouzmenko
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