Murder on the Orient Express | Kenneth Branagh | November 10, 2017
It would be ridiculous to view media – adaptations included – in a vacuum. Everything has context, from JRR Tolkien’s World War I experiences being reflected in Lord of the Rings to C.S. Lewis’ Biblical underpinnings of the Chronicles of Narnia series. Nobody talks about franchises in a vacuum. That’s why there’s so much comparison within and between the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes.
That being said, the history of Agatha Christie adaptations is an interesting one. I won’t get into all the details, but I’d argue there are quintessential Hercule Poirots (Albert Finney on the silver screen and David Suchet on the small screen). Poirot, however, is where my Christie background ends (if my memory is correct). Now, all that being said, if you were caught unawares, there’s yet another Agatha Christie adaptation hitting theaters – and it’s another adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express … directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.
From the two theatrical trailers, both ill-fittingly underscored by Imagine Dragons’ “Believer”, my hopes for and expectations of Branagh’s retelling of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express weren’t too high. There was a little too much sheen and an air of unnecessary embellishment – kind of like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Thankfully, though, a 3D release of Orient Express wasn’t in the cards – just a limited 70mm release, a conventional release, and a 4K release for large-format theaters.
If you’ve read or seen any prior adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, you won’t need a synopsis because there’s barely any noticeable difference in the plot. For those who haven’t, the film follows Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) making his way back to London from Jerusalem by way of the Orient Express circa 1934. He just so happens to share his journey with a peculiar cast of characters, from governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) to Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) to German engineer Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) to lavish American widow Charlotte Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to shady American gangster Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), among others. They’re one night into the three-day journey when Ratchett is found dead in his berth from 12 stab wounds (after requesting Poirot’s services at gunpoint earlier in the day), and the train is partially derailed and stuck on a train trestle because of a minor avalanche. In spite of his desired R&R vacation, Poirot puts his little grey cells to the test of finding who among his fellow passengers murdered Ratchett and their connections – which initially seem out-of-the-blue, given the setup of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film.
Branagh vacillates between restrained and over-the-top as Poirot. If you have seen ANY promotional material for the film, you’ve seen his comically large mustache. Mustache aside, Poirot’s perfectionism feels very played up – from his repeated requests for two equally-sized eggs to stepping in manure on purpose after accidentally stepping in a pile of droppings so both shoes would be equally covered. He is a bit more of a braggart (calling himself “probably the greatest detective in the world”), has a slight sense of self-deprecating humor (evidenced by brushing off his seemingly anachronistic rabbi, priest, and imam joke while solving a crime at the Wailing Wall in the Jerusalem opening as being Belgian), and is a little more prone to using weapons in self-defense (or as props), which also feels out of place, given his limited use of guns. Apart from Branagh, the rest of the cast (maybe as stacked a cast as the 1974 or 2010 adaptations) fits into their slightly adjusted roles, but is altogether underutilized given all the star power. It is an adaptation, after all, so there is some diversity in the cast, which gives way to an undercurrent of racism toward Arbuthnot and Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) but not Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz) – perhaps all unnecessary, given the film’s reveals.
From a technical standpoint, the unnecessary excess continues. For a film shot on 65mm film and released in 70mm and 4K, it’s also underutilized, unlike in The Hateful Eight and recent Christopher Nolan films. Film specifics aside, there are some particularly evident CGI shots of Jerusalem and Istanbul, for which there’s little to no excuse. It’s a big holiday release and notable adaptation, so 20th Century Fox would at least have the CGI budget for a more convincing 1930s Jerusalem and Istanbul, no? And from a behind-the-camera standpoint, there were some oddly executed shots – most notably a prolonged overhead shot of Ratchett’s body being discovered and the fisheye-like swiveling tracking shot from the trailers. I’m not sure how much of this was Branagh’s call, returning cinematographer collaborator Haris Zambarloukos’ call, or screenwriter Michael Green’s call. And speaking of Michael Green, the religious/morality undercurrent seemed a touch more prevalent throughout the film – even the painfully obvious Last Supper-esque shot near the film’s end, featured in a recent TV spot.
All in all, Murder on the Orient Express is just about what you would come to expect from a star-studded retread: not quite a shot-for-shot remake, but a fair amount of unnecessary excess and actors not quite stepping out of their overly familiar characters’ boundaries. On the bright side, it’s not a drawn-out film – coming in at just under 2 hours – a breezy pace, considering 1) how things slow down once the passenger interviews start, and 2) Branagh’s indulgent and unabridged Hamlet. It might not hurt to see it if you’re a Poirot or Christie completionist, but if you bristle at unnecessary remakes, I’d say stay behind in Istanbul and let the Orient Express continue to Calais without your presence onboard.