Murder On The Orient Express
I’m not an Agatha Christie fan per say, but I have read Murder On The Orient Express, perhaps her most iconic novel of murder, mystery and subsequent solving. And I’ve also caught the few adaptations that were made of the novel, most notably the 2010 TV movie starring David Suchet. It’s a fascinating story to be sure, but one ripe with pitfalls when it comes to filming: Christie’s tale has a lot of complexity in the amount of characters and in the way that the investigation unfolds, and making the leap from the page to the screen is something easily failed at. But then look who is at the helm, both behind the camera and in front it. If anyone can give this property the understanding and the finesse that it requires, it was going to be Kenneth Branagh. Did he succeed then, or was this a challenge beyond him?
Genius private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) finishes a case in the far east and, exhausted, prepares for a relaxing train journey back west. But his plans are interrupted when hard-nosed Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is found murdered on-board. Nearly all of the other passengers are suspects, and each has something to hide: it will take all of Poirot’s skill to uncover the truth, but he may not like what he finds.
While the film is not without its flaws, Branagh has does a serviceable job here. In the directors chair he’s crafted a taut thriller, at times repressively claustrophobic, at others grippingly tense. The look and feel of Murder… is all important: we need to be transported back the better part of a century to a time when trains were the apex of travel and it was possible for the kind of scenario the film depicts – a dozen or more strangers caught on a train for an extended period of time – to actually happen. In every sumptuous set, in every confined introspective of characters, Branagh achieves this, and why wouldn’t he? The man is a very accomplished director at this point, and knows just how to frame a tale like this one. The 65-mm film helps of course, as does the set design and the melding of CGI with “real”.
The Express itself goes from being a warm, inviting thing, just another fascinating ornament of a long-gone oriental world (a wonderful tracking shot introduces the train in such terms), to this dark, cold, coffin-esque thing, hiding a killer and hiding secrets. Branagh plays around with some obvious colour schemes to illustrate the point – the films generally dim tone is sure to turn some off – and frankly nails the exact kind of feel that I believe Agatha Christie was going for.
But it’s his job in front of the camera, as this seemingly insignificant little man, that is even more important. The moustache, the accent the manner: Poirot could easily become a figure of unintended ridicule in the wrong hands. He can be comic at times, intentionally so (in an early scene he corrects someone who names him Hercules: “I do not zlay de lions”), but a worse actor could leave the audience feeling deflated if he was played the wrong way. Thankfully, Branagh plays him the right way, with just the right mix of playful superiority – somewhat like Cumberbath’s Sherlock only without the all-out sociopathy – and moral righteousness. As Poirot himself outlines at what point, he has reached an age where he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t: the first he can’t live without, the second he can’t abide, and it goes for something as small as dessert and as large as the moral visitors and failings of the various passengers on the train.
Branagh’s performance is suitably reserved. His Poirot only rarely lets the mask slip, and only in private moments, but it is in those that we truly get a sense for just how exhausted Poirot must be, the kind of man who is constantly finding his services required, and whose weighty conscience refuses to let him turn down such opportunities to be an “avenger of the innocent”. Branagh imbues the little Belgian detective with more than enough humanity that the audience has no problem connecting with him, in his quest to find a bit of peace in an otherwise non-stop detecting crusade, and his specific mission to find who killed Ratchet. I’m given to understand that his portrayal is a departure from the wider canon, but a Poirot with a bit of a heart works in this context, wherein his cold manner is replaced with a more playful OCD-esque persona.
And what a cavalcade of potential suspects he has to play around with. You have some Hollywood giants – Depp, vicious and menacing as Ratchett/Cassetti, Judi Dench as the aloof and distant Russian princess Willem DaFoe as the blindingly racist Austrian – you have some serious up and comers – Daisy Ridley plays Mary Debenham with the right blend of superiority and charm, Josh Gadd steals the show briefly as Ratchett’s put-upon secretary and Lucy Boynton (last seen wowing me in Sing Street) as the aimless Countess Elena – and a host of others: Leslie Odon Jr making the leap from Hamilton as the now Dr Arbuthnot, Manuel Graica-Rulfo as the Italian car salesman, Tom Bateman, Olivia Coleman, Penelope Cruz, Dereck Jacobi, every role here seems to have been cast with the utmost care for what the actor could bring to the part.
And at the head of them all must stand Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs Hubbard. Pfeiffer’s heyday is behind her, but she still occasionally finds a part that lets her really showcase what once made her one of the biggest stars on the planet: Hubbard, on the face of it a conniving, braggard of little consequence, masking hidden depths, is one of those roles. Overall, Murder… is a supremely acted production from all involved.
And it needs to be. Good direction and a good cast help to keep Murder… going, as we get into the nitty-gritty of the actual plot, which oft-times threatens to overwhelm the viewer with the cavalcade of interviews, clues, backstories and slowly woven conspiracies. There’s no doubt about it, Murder… does become a slog sometimes. Adapting a novel like this, as mentioned, is hard, that is if your as faithful as Branagh is. But the film keeps ticking over, at least if you are the kind of person who gets engaged by the mystery on display. Unlike a lot of other crappy crime thrillers out there, Murder… quickly puts most of the pieces before you, and even if you haven’t read the book you might figure it out ahead of time, and not because it is being spelled out. I think that’s exactly what films of this type should be aiming to do. And, as such stories should be, it is less about whodunnit, but why they did.
And it is in the deviations that Branagh also keeps you engaged. His Murder… has a few action beats that certainly were nowhere near the novel, including a somewhat cartoonish opening parlour scene outside of Jerusalem’s wailing wall, and later, a chase scene down a railway bridge, and later still, even a brief shoot-out (that will divide opinion for sure). And a few other differences enliven proceedings: Arbuthnot’s race becomes a plot point for example and, there are brief comedic asides that don’t detract from the main action, and the finale spends more time than the book did on Poirot’s own personal moral quandary as the solution comes into view. Without going as far as Suchet’s version, Branagh crafts an engaging climax that makes us appreciate Poirot the man as well as Poirot the detective: I couldn’t say much more without being at risk of ruining things entirely, other than to say that Murder… is a good examination of the clash between man’s law and natural justice, and when one may be necessary when the other fails.
While a clumsy effort at setting up a potential sequel left a somewhat bad taste in the mouth just before the credits rolled, I still enjoyed Murder… immensely. It’s directed well, acted brilliantly, and teases out a mystery a lot of audience viewers will know the traditional solution to really well. Such a huge number of principals will always struggle to make an impression, but somehow, they do here. This is a masterful adaptation, that knows when to be pure and knows when to change. For fans of the book, for those new to Christie, recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).