Film review by Jason Day of Murder on the Orient Express, based on the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit about a murder on the most luxurious train of all, with the great and the good of society amongst the suspects. Starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh.
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Travelling back to England from Jerusalem where he has just solved the theft of a religious artefact, internationally renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) boards the Orient Express at the behest of a good friend (Tom Bateman), who also owns the most luxurious train on earth. After an avalanche leaves them stranded, it’s discovered that Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a rich but coarse passenger, has been brutally murdered in the most frenzied manner. Noted for his discretion and swiftness at solving crimes, Poirot is asked to interrogate passengers and staff.
Review, by Jason Day
I have fond memories of seeing the first version of this classic sleuthing tale, from the world’s most famous crime fiction writer.
Fragrant, precisely risen like a souffle and so light of touch to resemble an impish, drawing-room comedy, director Sidney Lumet’s lovingly crafted version featured the most deliciously hammy over-acting from a top-drawer cast (Lauren Bacall, Wendy Hiller, Martin Balsam et al) and even met with the approval of Christie herself, who always hated cinematic adaptations of her literary work.
She did have one complaint though: Poirot’s (Oscar nominated Albert Finney) moustache, which she felt was too small as she felt he had the finest in the world.
Quite what she would have made of Branagh’s lip-bush here, grey/white in tone when his hair is more or less blonde, who knows, but in size it sure is a humdinger of a ‘tache. Big, brash and bang tidy, Poirot has a fanny-tickler to be proud of.
Where Lumet’s film opted for a slyly sarcastic approach, Branagh’s movie has more action, some of which takes place outside of the infamous train and is also tinged with a blunt, slightly crude comedy. For the most part, this all benefits the adaptation.
But, not always.
The ‘solution’ scene, a crucial moment in any whodunnit, is the weakest point in this movie. For some reason, the writers opened this out from the lavish intimacy of the train to the frigid cold of a railway tunnel nestled deep in the mountains.
Clever editing and camerawork make such moments work in confined spaces, as they did in 1974.
But, with the flimsiest of costumes covered by gossamer thin coats and jackets, this supposedly devastating scene looks daft and confused, with the cast arranged in a dopey, ‘last supper’ set-up.
Earlier, Poirot and Daisy Ridley’s governess have a tete a tete over coffee and she opts to do this outside. With snow all around. It’s clearly below zero. He opts to not wear an overcoat. Of course!
Perhaps his “little grey cells” were frozen?
When Branagh directs movies, the results can be leaden, wooden, overdone. Here, perhaps he has found his form with a genre and period to showcase plenty of élan, brio and a fair lick of pace.
Does his Poirot exhibit Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? When he treads in hose dung, it is “ze imbalance” that makes him dirty his other, clean shoe. “Would you straighten your tie…just a little” he orders at two points in the film.
“Imperfection makes life unbearable…but it helps in the solving of crime” he explains. Coupled with the loss, many years before, of his beloved Katherine, in this film we get a nugget of insight into this most fastidious and annoying of fictional characters.
Branagh’s performance is lower in key than Finney’s twitchy hamming. Here, he cackles delightedly as he reads “Mr Dickens”.
Later, his cool tested to the limit as his sleep is disturbed knocks at the door. Finally, he is thrown out of his bed as the avalanche hits and, face on the floor, intones “are we dead?” Branagh’s Poirot is as self-assured and egotisical as Christie intended, but just that bit off-kilter.
Perhaps the stresses of the movie got to him as he loses it with ridiculous and unconvincing over-acting in a ludicrous final scene, unconvincingly inviting the killer to shoot him.
The supporting performances vacillate in quality. Of the good, we have:
- Cruz’s plain, tormented missionary
- Pfeiffer’s sultry, gobby, spanx-pants encased socialite
- Depp’s deadly, horrid, Noo Yawk gangster
- Josh Gad’s sweaty, alcoholic assistant
- Daisy Ridley’s forthright and intelligent Governess
- Leslie Odom’s intensely loyal but ethnically confused doctor (his surname is Arbuthnot, an old Scottish/Irish name that rings untrue for a black character in the 1930’s)
- Derek Jacobi’s efficient, quiet, moving and terminally ill butler
Unfortunately, there are a few poor turns:
- Willem Dafoe’s racist, arrogant, wooden scientist
- Judi Dench’s completely unconvincing and seldom heard Russian Princess
- Olivia Colman, playing Dench’s maid, is likewise underdeveloped
- Polunin and Boynton as the sexy young things are shuttered away in “diplomatic immunity” and have little time to impress.
If she is watching, Christie might well be dancing in her grave. Indeed, one of the credited producers is her estate, so they had a hand in making sure Poirot is as much Agatha’s as possible.
The train, a central character in the murderous proceedings, is lavishly, beautifully designed but is perhaps too commodious in sections (two abreast down a corridor? Methinks a few railway enthusiasts will pick holes about such spaciousness).
The travelogue pretty effects, wrapped around the train as it wends it’s way through alpine Europe, are ravishingly done. The smoke billows in an elegant CGI way.
I often criticise Branagh (as a director) for the wooden, but beautiful looking, movies he helms, but he may have found his level with this production. In one visually clever shot, the murder suspects are gathered in the dining car and espouse their innocence. Branagh films their faces from bind the windows in the car, the kaleidoscope of the glass multiplying them, their many faces, their possible guilt.
The murder scene, filmed with emotion and ferocity (but not bloodshed as the victim is not seen) and framed by tear-inducing music is a revelation. Despite the fact the denouement is the same as in the earlier film, it has an incredible, frenzied, moving intensity.
Hats off to you Branagh, you have done well here. As the film is left open for a remake of Death in the Nile (1978) I look forward to meeting your Poirot again.
For more, see the official website.
Cast & credits
Director: Kenneth Branagh. 114mins.Twentieth Century Fox/Genre Films/Kinberg Genre/The Mark Gordon Company/Scott Free Productions/Latina Productions/The Estate of Agatha Christie. (12a)
Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Gordon, Judy Hofflund, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott.
Writer: Michael Green.
Camera: Haris Zambarloukos.
Music: Patrick Doyle.
Sets: Jim Clay.
Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari.