It was with some trepidation that I approached the latest big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s seminal Murder on the Orient Express. For one thing, my enduring affection for both the novel and Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film meant I was already predisposed to not liking the new kid on the block. For another, I’d heard some very polarised reactions to the new film with some not liking it one bit. I can’t remember the last time that my father was ever as vitriolic about a film as he was after seeing this at the local Odeon.
Given all that, I was surprised by how much I liked the new film. Its by no means a match to the original version, nor even to the delightful 1994 BBC Radio 4 dramatisation by Michael Bakewell starring John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot (the pictures are always better on the radio.) But it’s nonetheless a solid, quality production which strikes a balance between sensible reverence for the source text with the necessary updates to appeal to a 21st century cinema-going audience.
The basic story finds Poirot heading to London on the famous Orient Express when one of the first class passengers is murdered while the locomotive is stuck in a snowdrift. Poirot is pressed into service to solve the crime but finds a bewildering array of contradictory evidence, which taken together means that absolutely no one could have committed the crime.
The novel has a strict structure: once the murder has taken place and Poirot has inspected the crime scene, it’s essentially an account of all the face-to-face interviews that Poirot carries out of the staff and passengers. Exciting and dynamic it is not. It’s hard to see modern moviegoers sitting still for this sort of thing for two hours, and so director Kenneth Branagh has to pull out a load of visual gimmicks, fast editing and stylish camera angles – such as a protracted scene in which everything is shot from directly overhead – to make the whole thing come alive in the confined location of the train carriages. This might also explain why the visual FX are so overblown that they come across as rather blatant and frankly poor examples of CGI, with impossibly gorgeous sunrises and soaring mountains with jagged peaks unknown to nature. However, the obvious ‘green screen’ nature of certain scenes set outside the snowbound train are harder to excuse on artistic rather than budgetary grounds.
In particular, Branagh attempts to bring the cast together for ensemble scenes more than previous versions did. Rather than having everyone sitting in their own compartments awaiting their interviews with Poirot, the camera shows them all gathered together in the dining carriage, or by tracking beside the train, or by moving through the corridor in a point-of-view shot in which each character is encountered in turn. However, there is something about the way these sequences are put together which suggests that cast availability meant there was rarely a slot in the schedule when everyone was actually present at the same time, necessitating digital imaging and careful editing to put them in the same scene – not altogether convincingly.
While I understand the intent, this mixing up of the characters does have an unintended consequence. Without their designated standalone five minute interview cameo, the characters get mixed up and struggle to make an impression. It’s not helped by the fact that the cast lacks anything like the Golden and Silver Age star power of Lumet’s film. For sure, there are modern movie stars in attendance – Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Penélope Cruz are all present – but they’re also all busy actors who you see in many films and even on television throughout the year. Derek Jacobi is well known in Britain but not so much internationally but at least he is given a top line credit, unlike Olivia Colman who is lumped in with the ‘also starring’ cast. Conversely Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley is given top billing and will doubtless appeal to the younger demographic, even if she’s too young for the part she’s playing.
Some of the characters receive more prominence than others. Josh Gad’s role as the murder victim’s secretary Hector MacQueen is expanded quite considerably from the book, and he’s given additional motives to kill his employer as a way of obfuscating the true reason behind the crime. (The remake omits the stylish reportage prologue that Lumet employed in 1974 – arguably as a complete spoiler to his own film – and instead hands out the clues piecemeal over the course of the story just as Christie did.) Leslie Odom Jr also gets more screen time, thanks to his character Arbuthnot being an amalgamation of two in the novel.
On the flip side, other characters are so absent from the film that you barely even remember that they’re there. Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton get a brief introduction at the start as the Count and Countess Andrenyi but thereafter stay in their own compartment until almost the end. Similarly, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo seems like a background extra who find himself belatedly given a few lines identifying him as car salesman Biniamino Marquez just before the resolution. When train attendant Pierre Michel (played by Marwan Kenzari) pops up for the ‘gather all the suspects together’ scene, you assume that he’s just there to hand Poirot a mineral water for all the impact he’s made in the film up to that point.
One good thing that the diverse nature of the cast does allow is the introduction of a new dimension to the film, in part thanks to explicitly setting it in 1934 during the early rise of fascism in Europe. Dafoe’s character Hardman is repurposed as an Austrian professor, loudly proclaiming his dislike for the ‘lesser races’; and Poirot is only convinced to take on the case at all when company representative Bouc (Tom Bateman) says that if he can’t solve the crime then the local police are likely to pin it on Marquez simply because of his ethnicity. It adds a dark, troubling undertone to the events of the story, and is a welcome grown-up addition by Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green.
With the atomisation of the suspect pool into too-brief appearances, it’s left to the character of Poirot to serve as the corner stone of the production. Director Branagh therefore has to spend a lot of his time spotlighting the actor playing the part of the Belgian detective; which, it so happens, is noted thespian Kenneth Branagh. This is obviously a problem, since it leaves the director open to accusations of self-indulgence that are not entirely possible to dismiss. However at the same time, such criticisms are rather mean-spirited and generally wide of the mark.
Branagh finds a way of being true to Christie’s conception of the character without ending up with Albert Finney’s painfully ludicrous 1974 depiction. (Finney was only faithfully portraying Christie’s vision of Poirot, but while it works on paper it’s an approach that ends up absurd on screen – the sort of thing which even ‘Allo ‘Allo would throw out as too silly by half.) When he took over the role for Death on the Nile and Evil Under The Sun, Peter Ustinov took a lighter approach and generally just said the words with a vague foreign accent and moved around without bumping into the scenery. These days we’re used to David Suchet’s peerless performance in 25 years of television productions, and in truth Branagh doesn’t come close to topping that.
However, he does successfully find a way of depicting Poirot which remains aligned to the Christie novels while adding a warmth and approachability, without simply aping Suchet’s more formal mannerisms. The film also manages to come up with a new way of explaining and conveying Poirot’s peculiarities by framing them within the context of what we know today as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). The film even opens with a young servant boy scouring the city of Jerusalem in pursuit of two eggs of identical size and colour in order for Poirot to have his breakfast with complete peace of mind. The film then suggests that it’s this trait that drives Poirot’s work: that it allows him to see the world as it should be and therefore pinpoint what is out of line; and also explains that he can’t leave such disorder in the world and is driven to correct it.
The film starts with an extended prologue featuring Poirot solving the theft of a priceless religious artefact at the Wailing Wall. Not only does he identify the culprit, he also has the foresight to set a cunning trap to capture the man when he attempts to flee. It’s the first of several sequences in which Poirot becomes something of an action hero akin to Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes, which immediately feels inappropriate. Fortunately none of these sequences last very long and ultimately do no great harm, ending up just another of the film’s attempts to spice up what would otherwise by a too-static film for today’s audiences.
This version of Poirot is also given a long lost love, which is something of an odd fixation for modern remakers of Christie stories (see also ITV’s long-running series of Agatha Christie’s Marple stories). Quite why a protagonist with no deep romantic angst should be so unpalatable is beyond me. In any case, the film finds plenty of more meaningful ways of making Poirot a properly rounded figure, not least the way Branagh portrays his growing, last-minute realisation of the true solution behind the crime of the murder on the Orient Express.
The other thing to mention about Branagh’s Poirot is the moustache. It is, of course, incredibly silly – by far the biggest facial flourish ever seen on screen. In this, Branagh is simply attempting to be faithful to Christie who describes Poirot’s moustache as one of the greatest in Europe – and this certainly qualifies. Viewers will take a few minutes to get used to it without sniggering, and even then there will be moments deep in the film when it suddenly snaps back into focus for a further dose of derision; but ultimately, this too manages to settle into the general mise-en-scène by the end.
And that in a nutshell is emblematic of the film as a whole. There are flaws, but generally they’re well-intentioned and do little harm and occasionally even some good. For example, the film works hard to set up a sense of upper class style and sophistication at the outset, even if it feels a bit too modern and beset by the odd piece of luxury product placement. The music by Patrick Doyle is lush and sweeping, but also too contemporary; moreover, it isn’t given the same room to breath and capture the attention that Richard Rodney Bennett’s score received in 1974; You can’t imaging it being played at the Royal Albert Hall in four decades time – you’ll enjoy it while you’re watching the film, but it will slip quickly from the mind once the closing titles have rolled.
If I’m given a choice, then the next time I watch Murder on the Orient Express then it will be back to Lumet’s original. But if my hand were to slip and I popped the DVD containing Branagh’s version into the player, I wouldn’t object and would still perfectly happily settle back for the next couple of hours without demur.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Murder on the Orient Express is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK.