Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Murder on the Orient Express is a period mystery film released in 2017, and it is the fourth filmed adaptation of the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie. Starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh, the film sees iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot caught up in a murder while travelling on the luxurious Orient Express train and his attempt to identify the killer before they can strike again. The film also stars Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Leslie Odom Jr, Penelope Cruz and Derek Jacobi. The film was released to a positive reception from critics and the film also performed well at the box office, earning more than $352 million globally. A sequel - an adaptation of Christie's Death On The Nile - is due for release in 2022, and it could be the start of a cinematic universe featuring the famous Belgian detective.
What's It About?
Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solves a case of theft while holidaying in Jerusalem in 1934. Suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder and jaded by the death of his beloved Katherine, Poirot is thinking about leaving the police force as he sails to Istanbul along with fellow passengers Dr John Arbuthnot and governess Mary Debenham. While there, he bumps into his old friend Bouc who insists on using his connections with the luxurious Orient Express steam train to book a cabin for Poirot in order to journey back to London. Graciously, Poirot accepts.
As the train travels across Europe, Poirot speaks to American passenger and businessman Edward Ratchett, who quietly has a proposal for him. Ratchett has been receiving anonymous and threatening letters and fears that someone is trying to kill him. Asking Poirot to help watch his back, Ratchett is astonished when Poirot declines his well-paid offer as he has figured out that Ratchett has some criminal connections and many possible enemies. That night, as the train is halted by an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, Poirot is woken by noises coming from Ratchett's compartment and sure enough, Ratchett is found dead the next morning. But who among the passengers could have killed him and will Poirot help catch the killer?
Professor Gerhard Hardman
Princess Natalia Dragomiroff
Edward H. Masterman
Leslie Odom Jr
Dr John Arbuthnot
Release Date (UK)
3rd November, 2017
Crime, Drama, Mystery
What's to Like?
It's been a while since Poirot graced us on the big screen (his last theatrical release was 1988's Appointment With Death starring Peter Ustinov) so it's little wonder that the likes of Branagh felt the time was right for a revival. With the ending of the long-running TV adaptation Agatha Christie's Poirot featuring David Suchet in the role, the character is made a little more interesting this time around - he feels flawed and vulnerable as opposed to the stereotype the character had become. Other than that, it's business as usual for your typical Christie adaptation - lots of suspects with hidden secrets, a gorgeous Art Deco-style that is a feast for the eyes and an isolated location trapping the characters, the sumptuous Orient Express replacing the traditional country manor house.
From a production standpoint, the film is easy to watch. The sets and costumes look first class and while the obvious CG backdrop doesn't quite match the quality in the foreground, it doesn't effect the running of the film too much. You also needn't worry about the quality of the cast either - Branagh has assembled a lovies' dream of thespians and stars to pad out the cast and while the characters might not be the deepest you'll find, they all hit their own performances with exact precision. I would have liked more time with each of them instead of following Branagh's Poirot around so much but I guess it would have made the film's core mystery easier to work out. Speaking of which, I'm utterly hopeless at working out who the killer is in these sort of affairs so I felt the film did a decent job of keeping me guessing throughout although if you've already read the book or seen any of the earlier adaptations then you'll be at an unfair disadvantage.
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- Branagh received some criticism for the over-the-top moustache he wears as Poirot, a stark contrast to the thinly waxed moustache seen on David Suchet and Albert Finney in the previous Murder On The Orient Express in 1974. Branagh fought back, saying that the moustache deserved such prominence as it was mentioned fifteen times in the original book. Coincidentally, Christie was said to be displeased by Finney's thin moustache when the first film debuted.
- The original Orient Express operated from 1883 until 2009 and ran through a number of European cities including London, Paris, Munich, Budapest, Zurich, Milan, Venice, Belgrade, Athens and Istanbul. The Simplon Orient Express seen in this film would have ran through Sofia, Belgrade, Venice and Milan.
- The song sung over the end credits was performed by Pfeiffer and was written by composer Patrick Doyle and Branagh. Called 'Never Forget', it was meant to be an expression of grief, loss and pain which ties it into the story's conclusion quite neatly.
- Believe it or not but there was at least one actual murder on the real Orient Express! Maria Farcasanu was robbed and murdered on board before being pushed out of the moving train by her killer, Karl Strasser. Later, in 1950, Simon Karpe disappeared on board the train in mysterious circumstances possibly involving espionage. Elements of this story were then worked into the James Bond novel 'From Russia With Love'.
What's Not to Like?
I'd love to say that this riveting murder mystery brings Christie's now-cliched characters back to life but sadly, the film doesn't quite manage it. For starters, the pacing feels far too slow with little to engage the viewer besides those beautiful sets and an ill-thought-out chase sequence that doesn't feel as though it fits into the film overall. I admit that I'm not a huge reader of Christie's books but the ending, which sees Poirot gather all the suspects up in one place before pointing his accusing finger, felt underwhelming and frankly a bit of a disappointment. And with so much emphasis on Branagh's Poirot, supporting characters don't get much of a look in - Bateman's sidekick felt underwritten and overexposed while the likes of Dafoe, Colman, Jacobi and others seem to only really get one juicy scene before the film moves on without them.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem is Branagh's Poirot, given how much screen time he has. I completely understand that he would wish to distance himself from Suchet's masterful portrayal of Poirot, one he perfected over many years. This Poirot feels different and hints at a more troubled persona than one we may have gotten used to. But Branagh's ridiculous appearance, with a clearly fake moustache that simply doesn't match the character's traditional image, distracts too much and he ultimately fails to bring the famous Belgian detective fully to life. I don't believe that Branagh directed the film to focus on his performance but with his role being so central to the success of the film, it's a shame that he isn't able to bring his acting chops to the part properly. Maybe the film might have benefitted from a director who wasn't distracted by acting in it but then again, who else could assemble such a star-studded cast?
Well, Wes Anderson for one...
Should I Watch It?
For anyone used to the book or unfamiliar with the story, Murder on the Orient Express is a decent enough adaptation that keeps things basic and fulfils the criteria for most Christie films. It also benefits from a stellar cast, glorious sets and costumes and competent, if unspectacular, direction by its star. However, the film lacks punch and pace and feels like a slow chug through the mountains rather than a more modern bullet train (see below). It doesn't bring anything new to the formula or convince me that a series of Branagh-led Poirot adaptations would be a good idea going forward. Let's wait and see, shall we?
Great For: Christie die-hards, sleepy Sunday evenings, anyone unused to David Suchet's performance as Poirot
Not So Great For: UK TV viewers, anyone in need of excitement, anyone thinking of growing facial hair
What Else Should I Watch?
The original 1974 version of Murder On The Orient Express starred Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot although he would soon be replaced by the irrepressible Peter Ustinov. Released shortly before Christie herself passed away, it was one of only two filmed adaptations that she liked (the other was 1957's Witness For The Prosecution). And it's little wonder - the film was a critical and commercial success and even won an Academy Award, one of six it was nominated for. When Ustinov took over the role for the next three outings for Poirot - Death On The Nile, Evil Under The Sun and Appointment With Death - the part slowly became synonymous with him. It wasn't until Suchet began playing Poirot on TV in 1989 that the right actor was finally found for the part - indeed, I don't know many people who would consider anyone else for the role.
Murder mysteries on film don't always work, whether due to a necessary shortening for time or because they are imitating or parodying existing adaptations. Films like Murder By Death and Clue felt gimmicky and far too comedic to be taken seriously as a murder mystery, often poking fun at more straight-faced murder mysteries like those mentioned above. One film that does manage to successfully revive the format is the very enjoyable Knives Out, a proper murder mystery with another ensemble cast led by Daniel Craig having a ball as eccentric southern gentlemen detective Benoit Blanc. The film mirrors many of Christie's conventions but manages to spin a funny and entertaining yarn that feels like it belongs on a big screen. There's little of the theatrical trappings of much of Christie's work in the film and it's so good that fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel, including myself.
© 2022 Benjamin Cox