Murder on the Orient Express is the second theatrical feature based on the well-known Agatha Christie novel (there have been two TV adaptations as well) and stars Kenneth Branagh, who also directs, as Christie’s famed fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The movie, shot on 65mm film, is both a faithful adaptation of the novel and an homage to a grander, old-fashioned style of Hollywood moviemaking — which has both its charms and its drawbacks. But the former outweigh the latter just enough to make this version of Christie’s trainbound whodunnit entertaining and even somewhat profound, although some modern audiences may get restless or find the unfolding story hard to believe.
It’s 1934, and we meet Poirot in Palestine, where he solves a local crime and decides it’s time for a holiday. But his plans are curtailed by an urgent request to come back to London and continue work on another case, which requires him to book passage on the Orient Express with the help of the rail company’s director Bouc (Tom Bateman), who boards along with Poirot. Joining them are a dozen other passengers of varying ages, nationalities and temperaments, with Poirot immediately finding a shady, gangster-like character named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) suspicious and disagreeable.
The journey is barely underway when two events occur: someone is murdered in their sleeping car and the train is temporarily trapped by snow on the tracks. Bouc, fearing a scandal, implores Poirot to solve the murder before the authorities arrive, a challenge that the detective accepts. But as Poirot begins to examine the evidence and interview the other occupants of the train, he discovers that the killing may be related to a notorious case from several years earlier, and that every one of the passengers may have a connection to or a motive themselves for the crime.
Fans of the book will remember how all this turns out, and frankly non-readers may eventually figure it out too (this writer never read the novel or saw the 1974 film, but deduced the solution). Yet even though Christie’s original puzzle and resolution may seem dated and even more implausible now than some critics suggested 83 years ago when the novel was first published, there is something captivating and engrossing about watching Poirot carefully and patiently go about his business, which consists largely of listening and watching. It helps that Branagh is outstanding in the role: eccentric, dryly funny and arrogant, yet brimming with a keen, unquestionable intelligence and righteous sense of justice, his Poirot is effortlessly watchable (and wears a moustache for the ages).
Michael Green’s screenplay keeps Poirot front and center and also expands upon the moral dilemma that the great sleuth ultimately faces as the answer to the mystery becomes inescapably clear to him: haunted by that previous case and exhausted by his own unceasing workload, this Poirot finds his own definition of justice put to the test on the Orient Express, and the experience changes him. That’s certainly a wrinkle we don’t often see in films starring a recurring hero (and we suspect that the studio, 20th Century Fox, would love to make more Poirot movies if this one is a hit), but the decision that Poirot faces adds an extra level of gravitas to the character.
If only we could say the same about the rest of his fellow passengers, who are personified by a glittering cast that too often simply fades into the background. Josh Gad as the murder victim’s secretary, Daisy Ridley as an enigmatic young traveler and Michelle Pfeiffer (who is having a wonderful career resurgence at the moment) as a seemingly husband-hungry older woman get the most screen time and the best moments, but other excellent actors like Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman and Willem Dafoe drift in and out of the narrative with little impact even though it’s confined to just five train cars. Whether Green’s screenplay went in this direction or Branagh is simply smitten with his own performance (a flaw that has bedeviled his other films from time to time), the powerful presence of Poirot leaves little room for a lot of the others on board the Express.
Branagh also has trouble making anything exciting out of the handful of duty-bound action scenes inserted into the narrative, and the second half of the movie begins to labor and creak as the investigation becomes repetitive and the many little twists and reveals start to crash murkily into one another. But there’s always a witty line of dialogue, a singular moment or a gorgeously widescreen shot (courtesy of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos) to liven things up, while the production design by Jim Clay ensures that there are plenty of lovely period details to fill up the frame.
So yes, Murder on the Orient Express recalls a somewhat older style of filmmaking, with both the delights and deficits endemic to a particular era (or eras) of period melodrama. What works about it works very well, and the biggest mystery now is whether audiences in 2017 will find themselves drawn into the story — like Poirot himself — or don’t want to bother to solve it at all.
Murder on the Orient Express is out in theaters this Friday (November 10).