As the Orient Express steams in to a theatre near you following frenetic, frantic superhero films and before Star Wars 8, it offers an old-fashioned whodunit complete with a glittering closed circle of suspects, an eccentric sleuth and an exotic, isolated location. The fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s popular 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express, comes after Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Oscar nominated version, a made-for-TV film with Alfred Molina as Poirot in 2001 and the long-running Agatha Christie’s Poirot with David Suchet in 2010.
- Director: Kenneth Branagh
- Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad , Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
- Story line: Hercule Poirot has to put his famed little grey cells to work aboard a luxury train
The story tells the murder of an unlikeable American businessman, Samuel Ratchett, on the Orient Express on a trip from Istanbul to Calais. A snowdrift causes the train to be stranded and Poirot must find the killer among the passengers in the Calais coach.
Unlike the Molina version, which was set in the present day complete with video tapes and laptops, director Branagh has chosen to take the period route setting the story in 1934. While some changes Branagh has made are effective, others make no sense at all. Making Arthbutnot a black doctor instead of a pucca sahib (played so effectively by a dashing Sean Connery in Lumet’s version) is a chance to look at race in the 30s.
However what was the need to bring in Pilar Estravados in place of Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson? Pilar is a character in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and unlike in that book, where there was a twist to her identity, here she is who she is supposed to be. Branagh must have been just rattling the chain of Christie enthusiasts.
Branagh’s Poirot is younger and fitter, but as Peter Ustinov said when talking of his role as Poirot in Death on the Nile , Christie chose to make Poirot the opposite of Sherlock Holmes. So since Holmes was tall, she made Poirot short. Branagh’s moustache however is a piece of art, luxuriant and layered and distracting to boot. Poirot has a backstory and a love affair, not with the flamboyant Russian countess however, which is again unfathomable.
As a period piece, the movie is gorgeous. The train looks luxurious and the cast is stellar. From Penélope Cruz as Pilar Estravados, to Willem Dafoe as the scholar Gerhard Hardman, Judi Dench as the redoubtable Princess Dragomiroff, Johnny Depp as the smarmy Ratchett, Josh Gad as Ratchett’s secretary Hector MacQueen, Derek Jacobi as Ratchett’s butler Masterman to Michelle Pfeiffer as the garrulous Mrs Hubbard and Daisy Ridley as English Rose Mary Debenham, they make the best of their sketchy parts.
As far as the detection goes, there is not much order and method with Poirot leaping to conclusions comme ci, comme ca. In the final count, Murder on the Orient Express is lavish spectacle — not meaningless, so much as shallow. And now our intrepid detective is haring it off to board the Karnak to solve the Death on the Nile. Vite vite Tout de suite.