Updated: Jan 29, 2022
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 Penélope 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.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017) 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.
It is ironic that in adapting a story involving a character attentive to every minor detail, director and lead actor Kenneth Branagh has created a film preoccupied with surface presentation. Murder on the Orient Express is a lavish production, full of charming period touches and accoutrements, and features a cast so leaden with established faces it’s a wonder the whole production was able to draw breath. In truth, the stars on display are mostly pleasing to the eye and suit the glamour of the Agatha Christie source material, but their collective presence constitutes a deliberate and wholly unsubtle act of dazzlement. One gets the sense that to star in this film was to indulge in something akin to a celluloid jolly; most likely as a favour to establishment icon Branagh. Given the classically cliched tenor of the story this is probably not an awful thing, but it still ends up feeling rather garish at times.
Branagh chooses to hang his narrative hat on his own head, and this is a smart decision. Sporting a magnificent moustache - the likes of which could render grown men incontinent with envy - Branagh brings restraint and a certain bonhomie to his take on Agatha Christie’s noted sleuth, Hercule Poirot. He seems aware of the weight of prior portrayals and the expectations of the Christie fanbase, yet also offers sufficient dollops of melancholia and joviality so as to be prickly, sweet and amusing, and accessible to more transient viewers. Branagh’s Poirot is a fundamentally successful interpretation, and dramatically speaking, everything that works in the film revolves around the character. As a negative, the dialogue occasionally veers from unnecessarily trite to knowingly droll, and in terms of Poirot’s general manner, the line between fussiness and neuroses is sometimes awkwardly struck, but one cannot deny the worthiness of Branagh’s efforts. His is the film’s best performance by a significant margin.
The rest of the film’s ostensibly impressive cast is a little harder to commend. Actors of this quality are virtually incapable of proffering a truly poor performance, but a combination of the restraints of the source material - being a melodramatic ensemble, with each character forced to ‘wait their turn’ in the narrative - and the aforementioned willingness to participate more as a favour than for artistic merit, results in some instantly forgettable turns. The likes of Willem Defoe, Judi Dench and Penélope Cruz obviously enjoyed having the opportunity to offer their names and faces and play at overt melodrama, but their performances are all interchangeable and by no means necessary. Star Wars heroine Daisy ‘Rey’ Ridley (here playing the elusive Miss Mary Debenham) strikes a slightly different note, and her presence in the film represents 'du jour' casting at its finest. Perhaps I’m being a tad harsh with what I’m about to say, but the journey on Branagh’s Orient Express represented something of a proactive opportunity for her, acting alongside those she should be aspiring to emulate, but I don’t feel she makes the most of it. Her performance is never less than acceptable, but she seems capable of no more than three facial expressions - sad, angry and sardonic - and smiling seems to be something of a physical burden. As such, Murder on the Orient Express does little to suggest she has a gleaming future post-Star Wars: Episode IX.
There is quality amidst the indifference, however. Josh Gad outshines many of his more illustrious peers with a convincingly downtrodden turn as the sheepish Hector MacQueen, and Michelle Pfeiffer underscores her more recent resurgence with a fine performance as Caroline Hubbard. She swings enjoyably from voracious vamp to vindicated victim, and plays her role in the central climax quite delightfully. I also rather enjoyed Derek Jacobi’s performance, and his interview scene with Poirot is gently poignant, and one of the few instances where the raw acting power available to the production is brought to bear. Alas, it is but a morsel. Branagh is the film’s architect, both portraying its central protagonist and handling directorial duties. In this capacity he plays things very conservatively. He is determined to execute the source material faithfully, yet is not beyond taking liberties should they serve a clear purpose. The opening prologue-come-introduction to Poirot illustrates this assertion, as does Poirot’s predilection for imitating Liam Neeson, only with an apparently magical cane instead of a gun.
Given these deviations, it is disappointing that the film does so little to further exploit the grandeur and intrigue of its setting. It is remarkably static; even when taking into account more than half the story is set on a derailed train. This lack of kinetic energy isn’t manufactured claustrophobia, for nothing is done to create it, and it’s little more than inertia; endemic of a film that wants for genuine momentum throughout. Some would doubtless argue that such a lack of mobility is the whole point, but I would counter that a fundamental lack of tension is a fairly big miss for a murder mystery. Again, one might be tempted to condemn Christie just as readily as Branagh for this. After all, this is her story, but the original novel successfully conveys the distress of being contained and detained within an opulent tin can, with a murderer on the loose and everyone as a suspect. Branagh’s film has little of this authenticity or conviction, just a crushing sense of inevitability. We’ve been shown that Poirot is a genius, and given time he will crack the case, and that’s it. Danger feels very thin on the ground. Ultimately things are neither tense nor exciting, and this is a failure of intent on the film’s part.
As classic literary adaptations go, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is a decent example, but it relies too heavily on the power of its poster, rather than the quality of its construction. Nobody is pushed, tried or tested, and the environment is always safe and never challenging. Contrast this to Tomas Alfredson’s magnificent adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011): Another classic literary adaptation with a stellar ensemble cast. The decision was taken to challenge the limits of the material, and to treat it as a serious acting endeavour with its own unique and potent cinematic tone. The results were multiple Academy Award nominations, one of the finest performances of Gary Oldman’s storied career and a film that honoured, celebrated and enhanced the material whence it came. It is a brilliant film, and everything Murder on the Orient Express is not. For some this won’t be much of a criticism, for we are supposed to afford such jolly celluloid capers the benefit of the doubt. If we deign to momentarily apply this logic, Murder on the Orient Express is, at its best, a mostly harmless jaunt with a fabulous moustache. However, if we disregard sentiment, the irony I noted at the very beginning of this piece completes its journey, and ultimately transforms into self-indulgent cynicism. Enough for some perhaps, but not for me.