Contains Potential Spoilers (never can be too sure!)
Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 adaptation of the popular Agatha Christie novel follows legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) as he makes his way from Jerusalem back to the UK aboard the titular Orient Express, having been recruited for another case. He is soon approached by the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) who has been receiving threatening notes, most likely because of his dishonest dealings, and who asks Poirot to serve as his bodyguard, to which Poirot expressly refuses. But when Ratchett is murdered during the night, Poirot is dragged back in to yet another investigation as he must question every passenger aboard the train and solve the mystery, opening up another infamous and mysterious cold case in the process.
As the man of the hour, Kenneth Branagh starts off well enough as the highly saught-after and infinitely perceptive genius Belgian sleuth; the film’s opening sequence set in Jerusalem lets him show a certain twinkle of the eye, a warm sense of humour and an impressive sense of showmanship as he confidently solves a jewel theft much like the best stage magician – with a surrounding audience, a few jokes and a whole bag of tricks, clearly being able to see several moves ahead. From then on, he shows his desire to finally rest and to have some time to himself, enjoying some local cuisine and interacting with people with a certain lightheartedness but also showing some inner turmoil as he pines over his lost love and later on, expressing desperation and hopelessness over the seemingly unsolvable murder. Branagh is good in the primary role, taking command of the screen wherever possible, with a gentle sense of humour when required, but is overall perhaps a little too bland, not quite having the charisma and intense confidence of David Suchet nor the humour and slight ridiculousness of Albert Finney, although Branagh does get to don a nocturnal “moustache protector” as he sleeps, much like Finney did in the 1974 adaptation!
As for the ensemble cast, it’s certainly a highly impressive list of names and they all give decent performances, though there are no real standouts and no one exactly gives a performance to write home about. Picking a few out, Daisy Ridley is as charming as you’d expect her to be and gives a finely tuned performance (but in the context of this story is perhaps too young to be seen as a credible governess), Johnny Depp is appropriately slimy and shady as the scarred Ratchett, Michelle Pfeiffer, after knocking it out of the park in Mother!, is on fine form yet again as the man-hungry Mrs. Hubbard, Judi Dench and Olivia Coleman are an impressively dignified pairing and Tom Bateman is very good as Poirot’s friend Bouc – he initially appears as an irascible spoiled rich kid with an overactive libido, whose father owns the train, but then goes on to assist Poirot in his investigation, growing to see the need for proper justice. The other players are all decent enough but many are relegated to the sidelines (especially Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton’s Count and Countess characters) and, since there are so many of them, don’t get to make a properly worthy impact in the feature.
Murder on the Orient Express is written fairly well as it is never boring and includes enough gentle comedy at appropriate times – it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and manages to tell the story in an adequately coherent way, using various flashback scenes (shot in black and white) to help illustrate events, keeping us on track with what is happening. But the writing isn’t as sharp as that of the 1974 adaptation and often feels a bit rushed, especially when it comes to the pivotal revelations that occur during the investigation, and perhaps tonally inconsistent when it lingers on Poirot going through some inner turmoil, pining over his lost love and so forth; these moments don’t really go anywhere in particular and make the film overly sentimental when it really needn’t be.
And yes, this particular tale has an incredibly popular ending, one that’s well known to a great many of us (though I do realise that plenty of people aren’t aware of it) and, even though it briefly appears that the ending will perhaps be different, that oh-so famous ending still remains. That’s what makes the decision to adapt Murder on the Orient Express in this day and age slightly baffling, since a great many people will go into this brand new film knowing full well “whodunnit”. For those of us who know the eventual outcome, there are enough subtle changes to the story to get us to sometimes doubt whether it’s going to be the same outcome or not, but the film doesn’t have the same level of intrigue and genuine mystery as Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version had and overall, this is a safe and decent detective story – not exactly spectacular but well crafted and competently told.
Design-wise, Murder on the Orient Express is very well crafted – the Express itself, built in its entirety in the countryside of Surrey, is a clear labour of love and there are plenty of impressive exterior shots such as the avalanche that causes the train to be stopped in its tracks and the final scene set as the sun goes down; but the use of CGI is perhaps too obvious at times and here and there, the use of green screen is too apparent. Patrick Doyle’s musical accompaniment fits well a lot of the time but towards the end, it gets too sentimental; overall it’s a tad inconsistent, not adding any tension or intrigue to proceedings.
A nicely designed and coherently told adaptation of a Christie classic with a decent ensemble cast. Good but not great.
★ ★ ★
As a side note, I’d be interested to hear from someone who saw this film but didn’t know how it was going to end. Was it a big surprise?