It’s been a good long while since Agatha Christie has been given the big Hollywood studio treatment. So long, in fact, most people don’t even realize that Murder on the Orient Express was adapted in 1974 by Sidney Lumet and Paul Dehn. This makes Murder on the Orient Express both a remake, an adaptation, and in some ways an origin story.
To be clear, I don’t mean ‘origin story’ as in this is the first mystery Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) solves. Far from it. It’s the beginning of Poirot evolving from a great man to a good one.
The famed Belgian is clearly afflicted with an OCD disorder of some kind. Branagh pokes fun at Poirot’s eccentricities, but ultimately he shows us how the great detective is bound by them. A forefather of television’s Monk Poirot is not looked upon as insufferable or difficult; he is instead viewed with bemusement.
Poirot’s eccentricities are unusual because they don’t play into how he solves the mystery. They are personality quirks and have little to do with his unerring eye into the psychology of the perpetrator. Played by Branagh Poirot is a larger than life archetype with his glorious oversized walrus mustache. It’s the type of performance that is both nuanced but wondrously fun to watch.
In essence, the story is as much the same as it ever it was. Poirot is on his way home on holiday on the famed Orient Express. The train is full, and he is only able to procure a seat because of his long-standing relationship with the son of the owner Bouc (Tom Bateman). While on the train he is approached by Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp.) Ratchett attempts to hire Poirot for protection, but Poirot refuses. “I do not like your face.” Later that night Ratchett is found dead in his compartment, drugged, and stabbed. Poirot then proceeds to interrogate and investigate while the Orient Express is stranded because of a snow drift.
Branagh is no stranger to adaptations. He’s adapted several Shakespearean plays to film as well as one of the better produced Disney revamps with Cinderella. Branagh and his screenwriter Michael Green have made some clever changes to the story. Minor changes that cause major dramatic changes to certain characters. The changes allow for more pathos and explore the psychological consequences of murder and how they can affect an untold number of lives.
The changes Branagh and Green make are superficial, but they have ripples. Colonel Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) is now a doctor and black. Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) is now Austrian and has unpopular ideas about how different races should interact. Mary Debenham (Daisey Ridley) is still a Governess, but now her relationship with Dr. Arbuthnot ceases to be about class and instead becomes one of race. This may seem needless but is in fact right in line with Agatha Christie.
Green and Branagh allow their characters to be prickly and opinionated. During the course of his investigation, Poirot while interviewing Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) is told “Dr. Arbuthnot was with me. He had some interesting opinions on Stalin that I had to correct him on.” Later on, while talking to Poirot, Arbuthnot mentions, “I was in the car with MacQueen. Nice guy but he had some funny notions about Stalin that I felt needed correcting.”
When Ratchet’s body is first discovered Poirot does all he can to stop people from instantly jumping to the conclusion that Marquez (Manuel Garcia- Rulfo) must be responsible. Race and ethnicity are at the center of Murder on the Orient Express. They are not the driving engine or even the message, but much like Christie, Branagh and Green use the occasion of a fun murder mystery to explore our perceptions of racial and ethnic stereotypes.
If Murder on the Orient Express is anything, it is fun. It moves smoothly and effortlessly as we barrel our way to the infamous conclusion. A conclusion that while infamous I will not spoil for you here. Green infuses a sublime and knowing wit often missing from modern day mysteries. When Poirot and Bouc sit down to try and suss out the facts of the case Bouc throws up his hand in defeat. Poirot merely grunts, “If it were easy I would not be famous.”
Branagh and his cameraman Haris Zambarloukos give us an interesting blend of the cinematic and the intimate. I like the way Zambarloukos’ camera sways and duplicates the image as we look upon the guests of the Orient Express. It’s a bit on the nose, yes. But it’s also a fun little nod to the notion of an all-star cast. At the same time notice how the camera lingers on the character’s faces during the interviews. It’s as if we are sitting there with Poirot searching their faces for signs of a tell or some deep psychological revelation.
Branagh stumbles in a few places. He has a few scenes outside of the train in an attempt to open the story up. An odd choice considering the whole point of the story taking place on the train is to give us the sense of isolation. Still to Branagh’s credit the scenes outside of the train merely drive home the fact that they are alone and cut off from the rest of the world.
In an attempt to modernize the dramatic aspects he dials up the emotion and action. We can chalk this up to modern and American sensibilities more than anything else. The problem is there are a couple of places where he pushes too hard, and the drama is shoved into melodrama and pulls us out of the movie.
At one point Poirot is talking to Miss Debenham only to be shot at by Arbuthnot. It’s a moment so cliche, so overproduced, so overdramatic, so American, and fundamentally un-Christie, that is borders on comedy. But I must remind myself that ultimately Murder on the Orient Express is not Agatha Christie’s story but Branagh’s and Green’s. If I wanted Christie’s story, then her book is on my shelf for me to pick up.
Despite its flaws Murder on the Orient Express is a joy from start to finish. It’s a warm fuzzy old-fashioned whodunnit for the modern era. A reminder that murder need not be a depressing gruesome bore.