About half a year ago, I voiced my skepticism towards Kenneth Branagh’s then-upcoming film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic crime novel, Murder on the Orient Express. Only a little later, with the release of the first trailer, doubts began to make way for hopeful anticipation. Now, after months of waiting, the Orient Express is here at last, so all aboard for the review!
The good news first: Branagh’s re-adaptation fulfills a lot of the expectations the trailer sparked.
Most importantly, the cast (including, among others, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Penélope Cruz, alongside Branagh himself) is every bit as great as you’d expect them to be—period. Or not period, actually: Yes, they’re good, and the joy of playing that they all bring to this project virtually sizzles on the screen. Yet, none of them, apart from Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, gets the screen time they deserve. Which of course isn’t their fault—but nonetheless a waste of potential the size of a locomotive. One of the fresh and younger faces on the train, Daisy Ridley’s (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) character is probably the one that gets most attention, and Ridley’s performance, accordingly, is probably the one that’s most memorable, too. As to the other passengers, they sometimes feel merely like a backdrop for Branagh’s / Poirot’s one-sleuth show.
Branagh, meanwhile, excels in the role of the Belgian investigator. While I can’t say that I like him better than Albert Finney (who played Poirot in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation) or Peter Ustinov (who took up the role in several adaptations of other Christie novels), his more quirky, neurotic interpretation of the character makes him a very amusing screen presence, and I would certainly like to see him in that role again.
Michael Green’s (Blade Runner 2049) screenplay, however, occasionally takes things a bit too far: The opening sequence in Jerusalem is so comic-like in its naïve slapstick humor that you’d think you’re in a Tintin movie rather than a crime film. Sure enough, Christie’s best novels are so delightful because of the way the “queen of crime” peppers her muder mysteries with a good portion of humor. But where Christie manages to walk on the thin red line and keeps the reader alert and in suspense at all times, the new Orient Express sometimes treats its subjects like a caricature.
The script also takes its liberties with the source material in rather unlikely ways: Especially the few additional and half-heartedly written action scenes make one wonder whether Green and Branagh feared that a modern audience might get bored by merely following a murder investigation. Less would clearly have been more here—more time for the actual investigation and for character-building, in particular.
Apart from its stellar and underemployed cast, the looks of the film are probably its biggest asset. With a feature playing largely on a train – and one embued with such mystique as the Orient Express – you want to get the feel right. And that Branagh’s movie absolutely does. The set, credible yet charmingly nostalgic in design, as well as the costumes make for an atmospherically sound, wonderfully old-timey train ride. Haris Zambarloukos’ camera brings slow and almost constant movement into the standing train and keeps up the audience’s attention. Shot on classy 65mm film with a great eye for detail, Murder on the Orient Express is a visual joyride, even if the green screen is a bit too obvious in some of the outside scenes.
So, where does that leave us? In my two previous posts on the re-adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, I expressed that I hoped Branagh’s version would redeem itself by innovating on some level. Maybe that set the bar a bit high: for what I found I wanted most, in the end, was an entertaining, nostalgic crime movie, plain and simple—and one that does not do injustice to Christie and her characters. All of that I got (if I ignore the more comic-y tone of the remake for a moment). Yet, that’s not enough to make me recommend or prefer it over Lumet’s version, which is not only the original adaptation, but altogether a more balanced one, and truer to its literary source. Branagh, on the other hand, can be credited for quite successfully reviving the material with a new generation of actors, and for a new generation of moviegoers. If he goes on and makes a sequel (which the very last scene might have been a hint at), I would probably tag along with his Poirot again. Maybe for a cruise on the Nile?
Murder on the Orient Express (US 2017). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green. Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp. 114 min.