Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934. It has since been adapted into two films, three television programs, and a video game. The latest version, directed by and starring Sir Kenneth Branagh is the only one I’ve seen, but I imagine my chief criticism could be applied to every version: Why? Why is this distinctly non-cinematic property repeatedly repurposed for a visual medium, when so much of what occurs is reliant on a textual structure? Granted, this story is my only dalliance with Hercule Poirot in book form as well, so perhaps Murder on the Orient Express is the most cinematic of his adventures. I wouldn’t know. Having read the book I am forced to view this the way I would a stage production of Romeo & Juliet: since there are no plot/story revelations which could surprise me or affect my experience, I must instead look for values inherent to this specific production. Does this adaptation add enough to the experience to validate the tickets of a book-savvy audience? Will those who haven’t read the novel be able to enjoy/follow it without any pre-existing knowledge?
The answer to both of these questions is “yes and no.”
Branagh’s film proves enjoyable for a few reasons. First and foremost it looks phenomenal. He famously hunted down the only four 65mm cameras in the world with which to shoot this film. For the most part, this decision pays off. Since the bulk of the movie occurs within the confines of a stopped train, the textures afforded to the long corridors of the cars serve to bring life to a setting which would typically suit a stage much better than a screen. It’s for this same reason that Tarantino shot The Hateful Eight in 70mm — it brings the audience into the confines of the setting, making the coziness almost tangible, while keeping alive the notion that the outdoors are more dangerous than being cooped up with a murderer (or in Tarantino’s case, a bunch of racists).
The downside is that the choice to use 65mm also highlights the mixed bag of CGI on display. At times, the vistas, although clearly made of pixels, are breathtaking in a painterly way. At other times it becomes very clear that we and the actors are looking at nothing.
This, of course, is no fault of any one member of this ensemble. In fact, the 65mm format treats all of the players rather nicely. With a picture like this one where the bulk of the narrative is a series of interrogations with potentially dishonest characters, the responsibility falls upon the actors to maintain their character’s truth. It’s this aspect which made the film fun to watch even with full knowledge of the mystery’s outcome, and for those who aren’t already familiar with the story, this is sure to add rewatch value.
While some of the characters are minimized in order to streamline things and make it all more cinematic, it’s a joy to watch folks like Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench chew scenery. The biggest pleasure, however, comes from the performances of Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. Of the considerable rogues gallery it’s these two who are given the most to do, and each rises to the occasion with aplomb. And by goodnes, I’ve finally witnessed Josh Gad being used properly!
Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot is perhaps the finest piece of the puzzle. Although I am unfamiliar with any previous iteration of the character, this one is a joy. Where the film begins, Poirot is already world renowned, and due to his one of a kind facial hair, most recognize him at sight. His job on the Orient Express, initially at least, is simply to relax. He wishes to read his Dickens (at which he is often depicted as adorably tickled, giggles and all). But naturally he is drawn into things when a passenger (Johnny Depp, conscious) turns up dead. At first Poirot is irritated at the intrusion upon his holiday, but when he takes the case in the name of justice, it’s fascinating to watch him fall back into his methods. Yeah, he’s a bit cocky about it, but he’s always a gentleman, and he refuses to make any declaratives until he knows he’s right.
This version of the character did lose me a bit during the final moments of the film. If I remember correctly, the Poirot of the page takes pains not to become emotionally invested in the case. He is interested solely in collecting the facts and finding the culprit, but here he reaches an emotional catharsis that feels (in my limited experience with him) uncharacteristic, and is a bit unearned. But it’s hardly a deal-breaker. In fact, one could do worse than franchising this take on Poirot, with the caveat that a more cinematic novel is sourced.
Overall Murder on the Orient Express is a worthwhile bit of fun. Fans of the book might will find it to be a slick, dutiful retelling of a classic, while newcomers will certainly be entertained, and may even be inspired to dip into Christie’s literature.
If I may make a recommendation, go and check out the audiobook of this one. Dan Stevens (The Guest, Legion, Colossal) gives the best reading I’ve ever heard, and I listen to a LOT of audiobooks. He adopts a different voice for each character and commits to each without error. It’s a flawless performance, and it serves the material better than any film ever could.
And for what it’s worth, ain’t nobody rocking the sick Dutch angles like Kenneth Branagh.
Murder on the Orient Express opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.