Murder on the Orient Express
By: Arlene Allen
I’ve heard people asking, does Murder on the Orient Express need another remake? I answer a resounding yes for the following reasons: there’s a whole generation of folk who have never heard of Hercule Poirot or read an Agatha Christie novel. Secondly, although the 1974 movie was a star studded spectacular of its time, it was stodgy and overblown, clocking in at 128 minutes compared to this version’s 114 minutes. Lastly, I add the main and best ingredient to the mix: Kenneth Branagh.
While other luminaries have portrayed the “world famous detective” including Albert Finney, David Suchet and Alfred Molina, it is phenomenal to have Kenneth Branagh come to the screen absolutely owning Poirot – with the attitude, the accent and the glorious mustachios. He tells us exactly who Poirot is and how he operates in the opening minutes of the film – minutes that are hilarious, charming and pompous at the same time. This background is new to the tale, but it does its job well by setting up what is to follow.
Poirot finds himself set on another case when his old friend and trainmaster Bouc (Tom Bateman) convinces him to take a bit of a rest on The Orient Express, headed on a cross-European trip. Poirot finds himself mired in the cramped first class carriage with a motley crew of characters – a governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr), a slightly rich American looking for yet another husband (Michelle Pfeiffer), a cantankerous dragon lady of a princess (Judi Dench) and her meek servant (Olivia Colman), a missionary (Penelope Cruz), an arrogant and bigoted professor (Willem Dafoe), a Russian ballet dancer and his mysterious wife (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Bolton) and an obnoxious and menacing art dealer and his entourage (Johnny Depp, Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi).
The train is full of weird sounds, strange comings and goings, bizarre conversations and veiled threats that (of course) end up in murder. Shortly thereafter the train is stranded by an avalanche and Poirot must put his grey cells back to work to catch what could be Poirot’s deadliest foe yet. That’s all I’m saying about the plot! What follows has more ups and downs and twists and turns than your average roller coaster.
Visually, this film is simply stunning. The exotic locales contribute to this, but the shots of sunrises, glowing cities and snowcapped mountains are breathtaking and the unusual way the shots are framed give this film a sense of majesty. The detail of the recreation of first class on The Orient Express reminded me of the detail of the work that went into recreating the Titanic. It’s certainly a crowded and narrow setting and while the camera moves down the train corridor, you feel some sense of the closed quarters the travelers shared.
The soundtrack is amazing, too! I haven’t been enchanted by a film’s symphonic non-diegetic sound in quite some time and I felt that way before I fell in love with the film’s closing song, written by Branagh and sung by Michelle Pfeiffer. The music, like the film, has so much unexpected heart – a heart the 1974 film lacked.
The cast, of course, is amazing. In a year in which many of the actors have released other films Beauty and the Beast for Josh Gad, The Last Jedi for Daisy Ridley, Victoria and Abdul for Judi Dench, Dunkirk for Branagh and Pirates of the Caribbean 5 for Johnny Depp, it’s a powerful testament to the actors’ talent and commitment to Branagh and his film. It should be noted that Branagh co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film. It would seem that this film is a passion project for Branagh and it shows.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but in these times I feel it’s needed. There’s been backlash against Johnny Depp this year and I’ve heard a few people saying this movie will flop because he is in it. Whatever you feel about Depp, it’s not fair to Kenneth Branagh or anyone else in the film to boycott a movie because of a single player. Depp is a good actor and if it makes you feel any better, he plays a despicable guy in the film who’s easy to hate.
A bit more about this film’s heart – and it’s a big one – I found myself tearing up at certain moments in the film, as did my guest. That simply didn’t happen in the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express and it caught me off guard. I, again, attribute this to Branagh and his interpretation of the book and the character. He is just so spot on in his portrayal of Poirot and I’m hoping he will tackle more of the great detective’s stories. If the film’s final moments are any clue, I’m betting he will.