When a classic novel is adapted or classic film remade, there are usually two schools of thought on it. Some people complain about a lack of originality or new ideas and lambast the laziness of filmmakers and studios, while others applaud the way in which the original source material is being introduced to a modern audience and having some life breathed back into it. Which argument is right? It generally depends on the quality of the final product. And the source material you’re talking about…
If the work is something as esteemed and revered as Agatha Christie’s 1934 Hercule Poirot tale Murder on the Orient Express, then that weight of expectation is going to be pretty hefty. Christie’s story of a Belgian sleuth trying to solve a virtually unsolvable murder case aboard a luxury train is, arguably, the most famous detective case in literary history. So it came as a small surprise to me when I sat down to watch Kenneth Branagh’s self-starring adaptation and realised that I didn’t actually know who the killer was. I was thankful for that gap in my knowledge too, as if you like solving whodunnits as much as me, you’ll know how little fun it is to know who actually dunnit before the thing even starts.
Before we really drill down into the film, let’s address the elephant in the room for a second, shall we? That moustache. Comical when you first see it, funny when you see it again and downright hilarious when you remember it, Branagh’s facial hair in this is nothing short of mesmerising. In fact, it’s not unlike the film itself: grand, opulent, ambitious, epic and ever-so-slightly preposterous. Its inspiration? Well, apparently, on seeing Albert Finney’s lip tickler in the 1974 Sidney Lumet version, Christie told of her great disappointment at his whiskers’ rather limited scale and luxury. So, while fairly absurd, Poirot’s ‘tache here is at least loyal to the book.
The rest of Branagh’s Poirot rings pretty true as well. He manages to make the Wallonian investigator both smart and yet ridiculous, likeable yet socially awkward. He’s softly spoken, polite and eloquent, but isn’t afraid to roll his excellently-pressed sleeves up. The Northern Irishman never quite does enough to make you forget David Suchet’s pitch-perfect ITV portrayal of Poirot, but then few expected he would do. The regular stream of pithy one-liners and groan-worthy putdowns in this modern cinematic version certainly don’t help.
For anyone not familiar with the plot of Murder on the Orient Express, we track the Belgian detective as he attempts to take a break from crime for a while and enjoy a little light reading on holiday. He’s offered a trip on the legendary long-distance passenger train service, the Orient Express. But – wouldn’t you know it? – murder is soon afoot. Luckily for justice, ‘probably the greatest detective in the world’ (his modest words, not ours) is onboard the Istanbul to Calais train. Using his famous powers of deduction, he must whittle down his suspects from a dozen or so and find the culprit…
The basic premise is 114 minutes of ‘who’s the killer?’ So far, so Sunday night TV drama, right? Well, no. Not quite. What elevates this latest version of Murder on the Orient Express is its visual lavishness. Its setting, just a mere few train carriages, can and does evoke an almost play-like nature to proceedings. But the occasional shots of the train’s surroundings, the odd inventive Steadicam shot and some unexpectedly thrilling action scenes all impress. The film was shot on 65mm stock too, which really adds to the visual class on show.
What should have been Murder on the Orient Express’ strongest suit, but is perhaps instead its weakest though, is its cast. The film’s Shakespearean lead actor and director amassed a group of actors to die for, pardon the pun. Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Sir Derek Jacobi, Tom Bateman and Michelle Pfeiffer all board the Orient Express, battling for your attention. And it just makes for some rather overly-crowded scenes at times. Pfeiffer and Gad, it must be said, stand out from the crowd, but the other characters rarely get a chance to shine.
So, then. A resurrected franchise and ‘a way in’ to Agatha Christie for millennials? Or yet another unimaginative rehashing from Hollywood? We said that there are two schools of thought earlier… Perhaps there are three. Only, we’re a little torn. While Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express is an extremely watchable slice of camp and old-fashioned fun, we can’t see its ambitious ending – a lead-in to a Death on the Nile sequel – exciting too many cinemagoers, eager for a follow-up to this very serviceable but ultimately forgettable spectacle.
Have you seen this latest film version on the big screen yet? If so, let us know your thoughts in the comments below – and if not, take a first look here.