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Murder on the Orient Express (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

Murder on the Orient Express


Starring Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Fulfo, Sergei Polunin, Tom Bateman and Miranda Raison.

Screenplay by Michael Green.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Agatha Christie was one of the great – if not the great – mystery novelist of the last century. Her brilliantly twisty parlor mysteries – which included 66 novels, 14 short story collections and several plays, plus many romance novels under a pseudonym, between 1920 and her death in 1976 – set the standard for mystery fiction.

However, her style feels a little old-fashioned in the 40 years since her death, and the 97 years since her first book release, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. That novel introduced one of her two most famous detective characters, the eccentric-but-brilliant sleuth Hercule Poirot. (The British spinster detective Miss Marple was Christie’s other major recurring character, though she did write a series of books with lesser-known detectives like Tuppance and Tommy Beresford.)

Murder on the Orient Express is arguably Christie’s second best-known novel – And Then There Were None would probably be her apex – and due to its intriguing and slightly ambiguous ending, it is probably the best-loved Poirot novel.

In fact, it was a hit film in 1974, with a brilliant all-star cast including the likes of Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins. And honestly, because even then the film was a period piece, the movie has aged very well. About 10-15 years ago, the BBC also did a very good version of the novel as part of David Suchet’s series Poirot.

With both of those versions out there and easily available, is there a real reason for yet another new version of the movie? Perhaps not, and though the new Murder on the Orient Express is not quite as good as the earlier versions, there is still a lot of life in this property.

Director Kenneth Branagh (who also plays the famous Belgian detective) is probably a wise choice to direct, as well. Not only has Branagh directed all sorts of iconic literary properties – from Shakespeare to Shelley to even Thor – but he has specifically worked on a very similar type of parlor mystery. The barely remembered but surprisingly good Dead Again had a somewhat similar storyline – a horrific crime in the past motivating a new murder – but also had a similarly intriguing period feeling.

Branagh’s work in front of the camera, while mostly enjoyable, is certainly broader. His Poirot is a stuffy, fastidious, anti-social, cynically amused man – just as the detective has always been. However, Branagh overplays some of the eccentricities of the character. The mustache – always an oddity of Poirot’s – is just way too far over the top, it is distracting throughout the film. Even more of a concern is that this version of Poirot is often in a state of unease and sometimes unsure of himself. Finney and Suchet were able to impart more while saying less.

The first sequence – one completely made up for this film – makes you wonder if this version of the film does not get the character of Poirot at all. A short intro scene where the detective is in Jerusalem and he must unmask a criminal in front of a crowd of thousands in front of the Wailing Wall. This little chunk of the film gets the character all wrong – including the fact that he was not a showboat who made his proclamations to crowds, plus it adds some silly slapstick action revolving around Poirot’s cane.

This scene turns out to be a false alarm, though. Once the actual storyline clicks in, the film is pretty faithful to the source material, though it is played just a tiny bit too overwroughtly.

The basic storyline is as simple as a mystery can get, a man is murdered on a train which is stranded in the snow. Only about 12 people were around to kill the man, but no one seems to have a motive. It is quickly revealed that the dead man was an infamous kidnapper and killer who killed a famous soldier’s small child while holding the baby for ransom (the storyline is loosely based on the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping case). And despite a series of red herrings and false turns, it turns out pretty much everyone on the train had some contact with the victim’s family. But who killed the killer?

The story is brilliant in its many levels. It’s smart and funny and very old-fashioned.

There are a few unnecessary “action” sequences to liven things up a bit for a new millennial viewership – a foot chase down a multi-leveled bridge, a fist fight, even one of the major characters gets shot, but it’s only a flesh wound.

However, Murder on the Orient Express does not need to be gussied up to make it relevant. Yes, it is an old-school parlor mystery, but there still has to be an audience for a simple head-scratcher.

Luckily, the little concessions to modern viewers do not really distract from the story itself, and that plot still has the precision of a Swiss watch.

There is even a vague hint at the end of this new movie that they may do as a sequel film based on the Poirot book Death on the Nile, which ironically was also the film that followed up the original Murder on the Orient Express (although Albert Finney was replaced by Peter Ustinov in the role of Poirot.). It was a good book, but with all the terrific Poirot books, it’s a little surprising that they would follow the exact same path.

Still, I am glad that Poirot is back. I hope there is still enough of an audience for this to become a series of films.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: November 10, 2017.

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