When I first heard about Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express I was super excited. I mean why wouldn’t I be? I adore Agatha Christie, love Hercule Poirot, and will watch anything starring the legend that is Kenny B. Then I saw the first picture of him as the Belgian detective and my excitement started to wane somewhat. That fucking moustache man! It looked like it had been drawn on his face with soft-serve ice cream. I’m all for new interpretations of familiar characters but David Suchet’s moustache is a classic. So slick and proud. I agree that Poirot’s moustache needs to be an impressive statement but I don’t think he’d have made the statement that Branagh appears to be making. Still, it wasn’t enough to put me off wanting to see it. What put me off more was the casting of Johnny Depp. I realise we’ll never know the true story of what happened with him and Amber Heard but I still think Hollywood has brushed it aside too quickly. I’d have preferred him to get a bit of downtime after the accusations… just to let him know he’s not infallible. So I wasn’t really in a rush to see it anyway but then I heard a cavalcade of negative reviews. Although, I knew I couldn’t resist the lure of Kenny B forever though.
Do I need to describe the story at the heart of this film considering it was published in 1934? Well, I guess we can go through the motions. Upon completing a case in Jerusalem, famed detective Hercule Poirot is intending to have a relaxing break in Istanbul. Until he is called to return to England on urgent business. He finds last-minute accommodation abroad the Orient Express, which is full to the brim of mysterious characters. Poirot is approached by American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to act as his bodyguard. Ratchett has been receiving threatening letters which he assumes is from business associates he has pissed off. Poirot, wanting peace and quiet, refuses but is forced into action when Ratchett is found stabbed to death the following morning. After the train is caught in a snowdrift, Hercule must interrogate his fellow passengers and use his little grey cells to solve the case before the train restarts its journey.
As much as I loved the idea of Kenny Branagh taking on The Murder on the Orient Express, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a slightly redundant film. It’s one of those stories that is so well known by now that it was hardly going to have the same effect as a traditional thriller. I mean the majority of the audience would go in knowing who the killer was and why. That’s not to say that there isn’t merit in revisiting a classic story but I didn’t see much evidence that this adaptation was going to do much to revolutionise the story. And if you’re going to do something like this you’d better be bringing a new and original take on the original. On the plus side, crazy ice-cream moustaches aside, it looked bloody beautiful and had an (almost) perfect cast. It might be a completely unnecessary film but I was still sure there would be enough about it to make it worthwhile.
Having now seen it, I wouldn’t say that I was completely naive before I watched it but I also won’t say that this film convinced me it was necessary to tell this story again. Kenneth Branagh’s attempt to revolutionise the character of Hercule Poirot is to give him OCD instead of just being a bit fussy. I can see where he was going with this idea but, in the end, I don’t really think it added much or really translated well onto the screen. Aside from an opening sequence involving eggs and a slight change to the final scene, the OCD didn’t really matter to proceedings. It just seemed like a gimmick that stood out for being a step too far. Still, I liked Branagh’s approach to the detective for the most part and I really wasn’t expecting to. I love David Suchet’s portrayal in the television series and have been unable to imagine anyone else doing it justice. Branagh didn’t go too over-the-top with his performance and, while different, was not terrible when compared to someone like Suchet or Albert Finney. He’ll never be the definitive Poirot but he’ll do.
Although, I’m not too sure I’m as much a fan of Branagh’s direction. He seemed too preoccupied with creating visual interest and filming over-head to really worry about the basics of storytelling. Maybe he was just so aware that people are familiar with this tale that he decided he didn’t really need to tell it? There are so many sweeping views of the train as it travels through the snowy surroundings and plenty of shots of a CGI train stuck in a snowdrift. What’s missing is little time to get to know the characters. The interrogation seemed to be over in the blink of an eye. There was more time and effort put into deducing the conundrum from the opening scenes than in the one that gave the film its title. Everything seems to be wrapped up really quickly and it causes the film to lack any real feeling of tension or intrigue. You won’t be gripped to find out whodunnit here.
Branagh has tackled his source material in a very nostalgic and classic way. He’s trying to reproduce the sense of the 1974 Sidney Lumet version but for a modern cinema audience. He too has brought together an incredible cast of people and has made an incredibly beautiful film. As an added bonus, the film was shot on 65mm film. Everything about Branagh’s adaptation screams old-timey luxury and, I have to admit, it’s stunning. The outdoor scenes are breathtaking and the scene of the avalanche that causes the train to derail is quite a spectacle. Everything was on track for this to be a fantastic film… it’s such a shame, then, that it isn’t. Even the cast is on super shaky ground. The majority of his all-star team get very little to work with whilst many just fall into oblivion. Johnny Depp is horribly miscast as the victim who becomes a ridiculous caricature of an American gangster. Great actors like Judi Dech, Olivia Coleman, and Penélope Cruz are sidelined in the worst way. Thankfully, there are some strong performances from the likes of Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Michelle Pfieffer to make up for it.
All in all, I didn’t hate the film and I do think Branagh makes a fine Poriot. It’s just that this is such a classic story and is so well-written that anyone else taking on the task is already on thin ice. When that person puts visuals before storytelling they are really doing Agatha Christie a disservice. I’d be happy to watch the sequel Death on the Nile as long as Branagh does a better job at showing off both the crime and the thriller aspects of Christie’s classic “crime thrillers”.