REVIEW: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is a sharp effort but uncovers nothing new

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in  Murder on the Orient Express .

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in Murder on the Orient Express.

If you ever want proof that I have the soul of an old man living in my twenty-something body, look no further than my affection for the old-school Poirot mysteries. Though I was never a reader of Agatha Christie, I grew up with the portrayal of her famous Belgian detective by David Suchet, on the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Something about Suchet’s fussy, calibrated and masterful performance stuck with me, and now it’s hard for me to see anyone else in the role.

But Christie’s work endures, and with Suchet retiring his portrayal of the character in 2013, it now falls to others to offer their take on the sleuth. Answering the call is Kenneth Branagh, one of our leading interpreters of Shakespeare, who has assembled an impressive company for a new version of Murder on the Orient Express.

Branagh directs and stars as Poirot, and from a production standpoint, the whole affair is visually rich and full of fine performances. But somehow, Branagh’s version still lacks a distinctive voice. The film experiments with camera angles and re-stages certain scenes, though they don’t illuminate the proceedings more than a traditional presentation would. The structure of the film also poses problems, moving the plot forward at a jerking pace that hints at some heavy re-editing after the initial test screenings. Murder on the Orient Express is never not watchable, but if Fox is hoping to spark a series of Poirot mysteries on the big screen, it may require a few more of Poirot’s “little grey cells”.

The film kicks off in Jerusalem, as Branagh’s Poirot is introduced in the process of solving the theft of a priceless religious relic. He’s soon summoned to London for a new case, and his itinerary places him on the fabled Orient Express with 13 other passengers. The travellers come from a variety of backgrounds, including an elderly princess (Dame Judi Dench), an English doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a young governess (Daisy Ridley), an engineering professor (Willem Dafoe) and a cold-blooded art dealer (Johnny Depp).

Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham, a governess on the voyage.

Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham, a governess on the voyage.

When Depp’s character is found murdered in his cabin on the second night of the journey, Poirot is called into action. His investigation soon proves to be one of his most difficult cases, as he discovers seemingly improbable connections between everyone on the train, and a crime that may have more than one perpetrator.

As Hercule Poirot, Branagh seems to strive for a new balance between the well-documented eccentricities of the character described by Christie - so carefully depicted by Suchet – and making the character relevant to a new audience. After all, Poirot is a famously fastidious character who measures the size of the eggs he eats at breakfast and wears a custom mustache-protector when he sleeps. Branagh works these details in, but is quick to transform his Poirot into more of a man of action, who runs after shadowy assailants late at night and uses his walking stick as a weapon.

This version of Poirot is by no means an insult to fans of earlier depictions, but Branagh also misses the opportunity to fully develop promising ideas he introduces, like the existence of a woman named Katherine in Poirot’s past, or that Poirot is feeling a deep sense of fatigue after chasing criminals without a break. While the characters themselves couldn’t be more different, it would have been fascinating to see Branagh tap into some of the darker feelings he harnessed in his other well-known detective role, Kurt Wallander. To see Poirot wrestle with more than just the intellectual problem he’s facing would be a very effective way to bring new audiences to the character.

The nature of the Murder on the Orient Express story means a large principal cast, and the movie certainly doesn’t hold back: all of the core players are engaging to watch, with the exception of Depp, who appears to take the reptilian nature of his character a little too far. The film also serves as a significant step for Ridley and Odom, both of whom appear to be on the cusp of major stardom. This is Ridley’s first foray into the mainstream market outside of Star Wars, and she makes me curious to see more. Odom – until now known mostly for his work in Hamilton – may also use this film as a springboard, though his English accent could use some work.

Johnny Depp as Samuel Rachett and Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen.

Johnny Depp as Samuel Rachett and Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen.

Branagh can’t be faulted for wanting to shake up the Christie formula somewhat. He employs a wandering camera in many sequences, gliding through and around the train. Perhaps Branagh’s most obvious change is to the classic denouement scene, where Poirot would normally gather all the main characters in the parlour of a well-appointed home or hotel and deliver the solution. In this version, the scene is moved to a long table set up outdoors in the cold (the train is in the process of being freed from a pileup of snow). The composition seems like an obvious reference to Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, though it’s not clear why. Is Poirot delivering a judgment to a squabbling bunch of disciples, who represent the various factions of society? Ultimately, the scene is just one of many in the film that works alright on its own, but doesn’t cohere with the rest of the material into something more organic.

The film closes with the suggestion that Poirot is heading off to solve the mystery of Death on the Nile, meaning that Fox would certainly make a sequel if business is brisk with this installment. Are moviegoers calling out for more 1930s European mysteries on the big screen? Perhaps – with this "origin" out of the way, maybe a sequel could more confidently continue the re-invention of the character. Until then, this film stands as a reminder that Poirots come and go, but Christie’s work will be with us for far longer.

Murder on the Orient Express gets two and a half stars out of four.  

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Stray thoughts

  • Somehow Branagh managed to devise a mustache style for his Poirot that looks even harder to maintain than Suchet’s
  • I’m so glad they didn’t put an Imagine Dragons song in the final cut like they did in the trailer
  • If a sequel is made, they’d better find some good people to play Inspector Japp, Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon