Murder on the Orient Express movie review: Agatha Christie done right; even dead Johnny Depp can’t derail it
Murder on the Orient Express
Director - Kenneth Branagh
Cast - Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Johnny Depp
Rating - 4/5
For film fans, it is never more apparent that we belong to a ‘developing nation’ than when we are forced to wait weeks for big Hollywood films to roll into our country. Indeed, in the case of movies like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and – I’ll never forget this – 2007 Best Picture Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men, that wait never ended.
But another thing happens in the weeks you spend in anticipation of a new film: You read about it online. There’s no avoiding it. Tweets, hourly updates on Rotten Tomatoes scores, tweets about hourly updates on Rotten Tomatoes scores; they hound you like injustice hounds Hercule Poirot. So while I’ve successfully managed to stick to my rule of not reading professional reviews before having seen the film, I could not avoid some of the more colourful headlines.
While most of them were evidently quite pleased with Kenneth Branagh’s film, one of the recurring observations however, was that he didn’t seem to have introduced enough new ideas to justify another adaptation of Agatha Christie’s celebrated novel. After all, they pointed out, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation is still held in the highest regard.
Having finally seen the new Murder on the Orient Express – eagerly, hungrily, as a lifelong fan – I cannot disagree more. Not only has Branagh retained the old-world charm and the exotic romanticism of Christie’s novels, he has found dimensions to the Dame’s stories that I – despite having read all her books to the point that they were under physical threat of disintegration – had never expected, and honestly, never even thought of.
And Branagh begins his deviation from tradition from the first scene of the Murder on the Orient Express, in which he establishes a new sort of Hercule Poirot. We already know of his famous moustaches and his legendary grey cells (he never shuts up about them, does he?), but have we ever wondered (or even felt the need to learn more) about him as a human being?
As masterful as Christie’s writing was – it is said that such was her genius that she could knock a new mystery out in a week – it was always cool and clinical, oddly unsentimental and emotionally distant. She was always deliberately vague about revealing too much about Poirot, too. He is an enigmatically peculiar man, remembered more for his distinct physical appearance, his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities than anything else – not unlike Sherlock Holmes, James Bond or Tintin. We know nothing about his motivations, and even less about his past.
Perhaps he operates out of ego – that is the most likely solution to his mystery. After all, Christie once described him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. But in the opening scene of this film, after Poirot has, with trademark theatricality, pronounced a lawman as guilty of a crime, he turns away and immediately steps into a pile of dung. He glances down at the damage with an expression as blank as his character has been for more than a century, and in one innocuous move, alters it forever. Instead of cleaning the soiled shoe, he sinks his other, pristine foot into the dung as well.
“There is right, there is wrong,” he declares to the utterly bamboozled man assigned the difficult task of escorting him to the Istanbul train station, in what is surely his attempt at an explanation. “There is no in between.”
Branagh – despite having a head that isn’t in the least shaped like an egg, and moustaches that (while being undeniably grand) aren’t at all like Christie described in the books – comes as close as any actor has come to capturing Poirot’s spirit, perhaps even more than Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, or fan-favourite David Suchet. In his OCD, he finds the morality that drives him.
And as he did with his Jack Ryan adaptation, Branagh (rather shamelessly) hogs the limelight, and delivers a performance so overwhelming that it threatens to derail most everything else. As Lumet did in his 1974 film, he assembles an all-star cast – Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp step into their snazziest outfits and paste the gravest expressions on their faces to play suspects in what has to be, undeniably, the mother of all locked-room murder mysteries.
By the way, here’s the premise (in case you’re still, even after 83 years, unfamiliar with it): While being snowed in during an overnight storm, a man is (brutally) killed on board the luxurious Orient Express, and only one of the 13 passengers on the first class compartment could have done it. Fortunately, through sheer luck, ‘The Greatest Detective in the World’ also happens to be present, and is compelled – now we know why – to bring balance to this world.
Branagh translates what is, by definition, a very stagey story through good, old-fashioned filmmaking. His direction is – elevated by Haris Zambarloukos’ stunning cinematography and Patrick Doyle’s lush orchestral score – as flamboyant as his performance. The same 65mm cameras that framed his stoic face in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk waltz around him in Murder on the Orient Express, alternating between intricate tracking shots, omnipotent overhead angles, and careful close-ups.
There are however, some nagging issues – like every train journey you’ve ever been on, after the excitement of departure has died down, and before the eagerness of arrival has set in, there is a palpable lag during the second-act; and despite populating his cast with such splendid faces, there’s little they are given to do to fuel the proceedings. Another cause for concern is how the film’s ending will play for those who’ve never experienced it. A lot relies on the reveal – it’s when Poirot is in his element, after all – and I wonder if Branagh’s decision to simplify Christie’s labyrinthine plotting will affect the film in any way.
But all these are minor quibbles. When the moment finally arrives – the suspects seated before him in a tableau reminiscent of the Last Supper, and the Orient Express looming large in the background – Branagh delivers his most moving surprise yet.
As his impeccable hair falls out of place, and fresh snow sticks to his coat – a matter that would have at any other time ‘caused him more pain than a bullet wound’, and as Patrick Doyle’s score reaches crescendo and his voice quivers with emotion we’ve never heard before, Branagh unleashes a wallop of raw, unexpected sentimentality that’ll strike you with the force of a steam engine.
Broken souls are mended, old wounds are healed and order has been restored to the world; the Orient Express, is back on track. As the train finally arrives at its destination - thematically, and literally - Hercule Poirot is summoned to his next adventure. For our sake, let’s hope we’re invited for the ride.
Watch the Murder on the Orient Express trailer here