New versions of classic films are always, understandably, large targets, and Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is no exception. Branagh directs and stars as Hercule Poirot who, by his own pronouncement, is “the greatest detective in the world”. Since Branagh is one of filmdom’s most indomitable showmen it seems somehow fitting that he has, despite the odds, taken up both the role and the helm. And though critical reception has thus far ranged from tepid to mildly approving, the film has fared better in the realm of popular opinion: it recently topped $200 million dollars in worldwide box-office and Branagh’s second Christie project, Death on the Nile, has been greenlighted for pre-production.
The plot is familiar, even to those who have neither read the 1934 novel nor seen Sidney Lumet’s famous 1974 all-star adaptation featuring Albert Finney: The year is 1935, and 13 apparent strangers are sharing a carriage on the legendary luxury train from Istanbul to Calais. One of them is stabbed to death in his cabin, and the rest are trapped on the train by massive snowdrifts that have blocked the tracks. Who among them is the killer? Fortunately, Hercule Poirot is also onboard.
Branagh is a fine actor—intelligent, with engaging presence—and his portrayal of Poirot is at once distinctive and respectably within a range of loyalty to the character as established by Christie and brought to life by Finney in the Lumet film (which garnered 10 BAFTA nominations and won three awards, and six Oscar nominations, winning one). For many aficionados, the real gold standard of the character is David Suchet’s long-running embodiment in the ITV series, seen in America on PBS.
Much has been made of Branagh’s bold choice for Poirot’s signature “moustaches”. His idea for the Belgian sleuth’s facial hair—coddled, manicured, worn as a distinguishing badge of fastidious pride—is indeed far more extravagant in scope than that of previous avatars. It seems worth noting, though, that the reaction to this choice seems even more outsized than the rendition itself. Once you accept the theatricality (a characteristic certainly in keeping with Poirot) of Branagh’s aesthetic statement it ceases to be a distraction, and one can look for other more substantial cavils—and there are some fair shots to take. The single greatest challenge in filming this particular Christie novel is the stasis inherent in the plot. Once the train grinds to a halt in the snows of the Carpathian Alps, if we do not find the various trapped characters sufficiently intriguing there is precious little dramatic momentum. The most egregious fault of Branagh’s film is the rather short shrift he and screenwriter Michael Green give to the gallery of mysteriously colorful passengers, brought to life with such memorable idiosyncracy in the Lumet film by the likes of John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Lauren Bacall, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, and Jacqueline Bisset. Branagh takes the same high-wattage casting approach, but undercuts his strategic advantage. To cast Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi in the small but rich and juicy roles of an exiled Russian princess and a quintessentially discreet gentleman’s valet and then give them so few moments of screen time is a sacrilege and inevitably evokes unfortunate comparisons with what Hiller and Gielgud in the 1974 film and Eileen Atkins and Hugh Bonneville in the 2010 television Suchet version, were allowed to create. Only Michelle Pfeiffer’s characterization of a brash, man-hunting American divorcee is given space enough for developing any color and depth of shading.
The train sets are appropriately, tastefully grand, a not insignificant mark of success since the Orient Express is itself a central character in the piece, and the exterior shots (both actual locations and matte work) impressive. Indeed, the look of this film is polished and appealing. Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography, the production design by Jim Clay, and Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are expert. At times Branagh’s direction—so assured in his Shakespearean outings as both star and director, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet—feels a bit muddled here. The opening scenes are awkward in staging and tone. As though to make his own mark on the piece, a few of his narrative choices, though never completely misguided, seem arbitrary.
Branagh evinces one crucial aspect of Poirot’s character quite adroitly—the moral compass that, along with his ego, motivates him. It is not only his respect for “method, order, the little grey cells” that guides his detection but his reverence for justice. Furthermore, though worldly and urbane and though he has seen the worst of human nature, Poirot is un croyant, a man of faith (something the superb Suchet version went to even greater lengths to indicate). Both Branagh’s direction and performance suffuse the ending of the film with a gravitas that acknowledges the Belgian mastermind’s dogged belief in the possibility of redemption, even when human frailty has revealed itself at its most confoundingly complex.
Whatever nits devotees of Christie’s work and characters choose to pick, and however each may cleave to personal preferences in various adaptations, it seems safe to say that Branagh has at least acquitted himself well enough here to draw them back in a year or so when Death on the Nile finds its way to theatres. Perhaps he will even take the more legitimate criticisms of his first Poirot endeavor to heart.
As the great one himself might say, “Eh bien.”
– Hadley Hury