as reviewed by Tom
Format Reviewed: DVD/20th Century Fox (2018).
Am I the only one who finds Poirot's final deduction in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ frustratingly unsatisfying? In truth, I came very late to the Poirot party, and the first adaptation I saw, relatively recently, was Sidney Lumet's 1974 version with Albert Finney as our favourite moustachioed Belgian detective. I remember feeling utterly deflated when Poirot came to his conclusion. There was a distinct feeling of “is that it?”. I am fully prepared to admit that I may have missed something. Knowing the ending, and also my feelings about it, meant that approaching Kenneth Branagh’s version came with some baggage, but also the inevitable question – is it really worth re-telling this very well-travelled story in a new interpretation?
The short answer is: ‘yes’.
Branagh’s film begins with a prologue not present in the novel which efficiently establishes Hercule Poirot's credentials as a consummate and clever detective (for those of us who might not already be aware of that). From there, we are in the familiar territory of Poirot wanting a few welcome days’ rest, only to be subsumed into murderous intrigue once aboard the famous Orient Express. Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot gets the humour just right, as indeed does the film itself. It is often overlooked that the Poirot stories contain many humorous turns of phrase from the pen of Agatha Christie. Branagh's performance has particular fun with Poirot's obsessive tendencies – the size of his breakfast oeufs; his request for a police officer to straighten his tie – and presents him as an amusingly sardonic and slightly irritable figure. Here is a detective who takes his job utterly seriously, but still finds time to charmingly chuckle away at his book at bedtime. He doesn't suffer fools but enjoys a slice of cake. Entertainingly, Poirot's mighty moustache has a life of its own and I wouldn't be surprised if it had a separate agent and negotiated a top salary. It also has its own night hammock.
Branagh’s typically flashy directing style encompasses showy but tasteful tracking shots as Poirot finds his cabin, doubling as brief introductions to his travelling companions as he passes them in the corridor, and a clinical overhead shot upon the discovery of the murder victim’s body, accompanying the characters’ discussions in hushed tones. The film is beautifully made, taking full cinematic advantage of its snowbound setting. Branagh makes exceptional use of the close-up, both to show Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ working overtime behind his eyes, but also to showcase the extremely impressive wealth of acting talent he has surrounded himself with (even by Agatha Christie standards).
Arguably, with stories of this nature, the least interesting part is the interrogation scenes. This version doesn't quite surmount this problem, as a key element of the Orient Express story is that everyone is a suspect. However, it is fun to see many familiar faces cast against type. Dame Judi Dench plays the prim and miserable Princess Dragomiroff, Willem Dafoe is the slightly klutzy Gerhard Hardman, and Penelope Cruz is the seemingly upstanding but frumpy Pilar Estravados, to name but a few. The ensemble cast generally works well, even Johnny Depp as the murder victim Edward Ratchett, who has often had the tendency to come across as irritatingly blasé and detached in the majority of his recent performances. That said, perhaps it’s a small mercy that he isn’t in the film very much.
The murder plot and the conclusion may still be utterly improbable, but for my money, this is the only adaptation that seems to be willing to let the emotional consequences linger. The motive for the murder remains extremely poignant, a fact that Poirot acknowledges, but we see a Poirot grappling with his own conscience, conflicted over how he might ‘live with the imbalance’ of a solution that is not cut and dried.
2017’s Murder on the Orient Express is potentially inessential and even verging on the unnecessary. But though Poirot purists may scoff, I find this incarnation the most satisfyingly enjoyable, and ultimately the most wilfully cinematic. Kenneth Branagh is certainly an unexpected Hercule Poirot. Though it is unlikely his rendition will usurp the likes of the celebrated David Suchet from audience affections, it is nonetheless a performance of verve and attention to detail that is surprisingly endearing. When Poirot is alerted to a death on the Nile in the closing moments, I found myself looking forward to joining this enduring detective for another well-worn adventure.