When it came to my attention that they were remaking Murder On The Orient Express many months ago, it was intriguing. Not having seen the original, I felt no sense of loyalty to it, and felt that I could judge this as its own entity. And my, Agatha Christie’s classic has received quite the update, challenging in that the material itself can appear dated in the eyes of modern audiences. Murder mysteries are not the sell that they once were, which may prove problematic for Kenneth Branagh’s latest adaption.
Branagh never fails to succeed in giving Christie’s hero, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, a polished, debonair feel. And despite the steampunk mustache, which is easily laughable, Branagh is able to work around it and bring life to this pure soul with a strong moral compass, unable to see the shades of grey that live in a chaotic world. The accent can be a bit distracting at times, but it does allow the injection of humor into otherwise stuffy scenes.
Detective Poirot is traveling via the train The Orient Express from Istanbul, when in the middle of the night during a storm, the train is derailed by an avalanche. But that is not the greatest surprise for our passengers. The body of the mysterious Mr. Ratchett, (Johnny Depp) is found murdered. Unable to withstand justice not being served, Poirot takes up the case, using suave manners and skills of deduction to find our killer. On this train, everyone’s a suspect with a secret, whether that is Ratchett’s alcoholic secretary (Josh Gad), or his opinionated valet (Derek Jacobi). Also traveling on the train are the Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), and her maid, Fraulein Schmidt (Olivia Coleman). Missionary Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), the husband hunting Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Professor Gerhard (Willem Dafoe), Governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), and Dr. John Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) round out our ensemble.
The palette of this film is stunning. The 1930s art deco color shows up so vividly that it feels as if you are standing next to them, pristine and eye popping. The shots of this film are interesting, and not exactly in an atrocious manner. One that stands out is an overhead shot in a corridor, after the body is found. The cinematography in this scene is beautifully stated in its simplicity. It presents our characters to us at this moment as faceless, we are looking down on them like God. In fact, God has a strong presence in this story. We speak not of fire and brimstone, but a God that could tell the line between justice and vengeance. Seemingly appropriate as our hero struggles with that same dilemma. In one scene we see all our suspects presented to us at a long table, inspired by Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The symbolism in both of these scenes brings a greater insight to this film than is first apparent. Even I left the cinema questioning my own morals after the film had concluded, thinking about it for hours afterwards.
There is one stand out performance in this film that must be spoken of and that is of Josh Gad. I have been a fan of his for years for his comedic and musical brilliance. However, I admit to having wanted to see more range from him as an actor. And finally, my wish was granted. His performance of Hector McQueen was brilliant. It was not over the top, or campy, but true. Every word, every tick, every look was absolutely believable. I truly believed that he was a tortured soul, and sympathized with him. And if this is any indication of his future, then it is bright!
Now I’m sorry to say this, but I feel that despite its outward appearance, it’s going to take more than a whodunit with a stellar cast to sell this material to an audience. Agatha Christie is not the titan of literature that she once was. It is a sad fact, but a true one. Her stories stand the test of time, but they have not exactly translated well to the silver screen. Unless we are counting television films, the last Poirot movie to be made was 1982’s Evil Under The Sun. Since then David Suchet has made this character iconic on television, so much so that his face has become synonymous with the famous mustache. But if you aren’t one who goes to the cinema often, you could easily fall out of the loop with this character, seemingly having no idea who he is. In truth, despite the publicity that this film has received since its inception, it is not an easy sell to the casual moviegoer of the superhero/franchise generation. And therefore, let us hope word of mouth may be enough to bring this long banished icon back into the spotlight. If not, I’m afraid we will not see him again on the silver screen for at least a few more decades.
Overall an enjoyable film, particularly for those who love a good mystery. Just be warned – The story may seem small, but do not be deceived. Like most murders, it is anything but.