Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

2017 #164
Kenneth Branagh | 114 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK, Malta, France, Canada & New Zealand / English, French & German | 12A / PG-13

Murder on the Orient Express

Did we need another version of Murder on the Orient Express? That seems to be the question that preoccupies many a review of the film, primarily with reference to the Oscar-winning 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, alongside an all-star supporting cast. That’s not the only other adaptation of arguably detective fiction’s most famous novel, though there were fewer than I thought: a modernised TV movie starring Alfred Molina was made in 2001, and it was of course filmed as part of the David Suchet Poirot TV series in 2010, but that’s your lot (in English — the Germans and Japanese have both done it on TV). So, on the one hand, maybe we should be all set for screen versions; on the other, it’s not like it’s the only remake.

So, if you’ve not seen a version before, you’re spoilt for choice. If you want to know which I think you should pick… Well, I’ve not seen it, but I imagine we can discount that 2001 TV movie. Suchet is still the definitive screen interpretation of Poirot, but that particular episode is not the series’ finest hour, as I recall. And while I enjoyed the ’74 version a good deal, I wasn’t bowled over by it. Which brings us to this new one.

The star of the film: Branagh's moustache

Personally, I thought it was very good indeed. It’s a film of its genre and heritage — by which I mean it functions the way Christie-style murder mysteries always do, and it’s staged and shot mostly with a classical dignity — so if you have a dislike for that then this isn’t revisionist in a way that will win you over. But within those ‘constraints’ it’s very well done. The photography, in particular, is magnificent. Shot on 65mm, but without showing off about it in the way some other directors have recently, it has a richness, a grandeur, and an elegance that is most befitting.

Having mentioned the all-star cast of the previous film, it must be said that this version doesn’t skimp in that department either. The key roles are filled with a veritable who’s-who of acting talent, including big names (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz), quality thesps (Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe), people who’ve worked with Branagh before (many of the small roles), people who tick multiple of those boxes (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi), and freshly-minted stars too (Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton; depending on your point of view, Beauty and the Beast‘s Josh Gad and Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr as well). The size of the cast and style of the story means that even the most-featured only get a couple of scenes of their own (plus scattered lines in ensemble moments), but the talent involved imbues the roles with inherent character.

A dangerous liaison?

And then there’s Branagh himself as Monsieur Poirot. Most discussion of his performance has focused on the moustache, understandably. It’s certainly a magnificent feat. But Branagh is a very fine actor, of course, and he manages to make Poirot his own — an impressive job when there’s the spectre of David Suchet’s definitive performance looming. I wouldn’t say he’s surpassed Suchet in any way, but his take on the character is different enough to dodge too many direct comparisons, while not being so different that it no longer feels like Poirot, at least to me.

Frankly, I feel like an important element to enjoying the film is to approach it with an openness to it being its own thing — a courtesy I don’t believe it was afforded by some critics and viewers. Many reviews I’ve read had a tendency to compare it to the 1974 film, either in a specific “what I thought of each” sense or a broad “your opinions of that film may colour your view of this one”. I guess that’s a useful metric to some people, but it’s better to judge the film on its own merits, I feel. That said, I’ve also seen some call it too slow, others call it too fast; some say it’s too dull, others say it’s too full of action… No wonder it ended up with middling average scores: never mind not being able to please everyone, it seems like you can’t please anyone. Personally, I thought it largely hit the mark in all those respects.

Classical elegance

And it seems like the wider audience agreed: it ended up grossing $350 million worldwide, which places it in the top 30 releases of 2017. For a film of this type in the current box office climate, that’s an excellent achievement. For comparison, it’s just below the likes of Fifty Shades 2, Cars 3, and The Mummy Mk.III, and it also out-grossed films such as The LEGO Batman Movie, Blade Runner 2049, Split, Baby Driver, and even Get Out. I guess it appealed to a different audience than the one that routinely discusses movies online. It also means we’re getting a sequel, with Death on the Nile set for a 2019 release. Do we need another version of that too? Well, why not?

4 out of 5

Murder on the Orient Express was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and all the rest, in the UK this week.

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Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

2009 #94
Sidney Lumet | 122 mins | TV | PG / PG

Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express is arguably Agatha Christie’s most famous novel, perhaps because of its widely-known twist ending, or perhaps because it’s inspired in part by a high-profile true story, or perhaps because of this multi-Oscar-nominated all-star adaptation.

The plot is the stereotypical Christie set up: a group of fairly well-off people find themselves in a confined setting, one is killed, a sleuth works out who. This time it’s a train rather than a luxurious mansion, but the basics are there. This isn’t a criticism — I enjoy a good Christie adaptation as much as everyone else who’s kept the current TV incarnation on air for 21 years (and counting) — and here at least Christie has a number of twists to her usual style. As mentioned its launching point is a true story, the Armstrong kidnapping and murder being based on the Lindbergh kidnap of 1932 (just a couple of years before the book was written); the snow-bound train’s location (very apt after our recent weather) is certainly different to a stereotypical country estate setting; and then there’s the infamous ending.

I won’t spoil it here, just in case anyone doesn’t know it. Some are very critical of this particular denouement, labeling it an unsatisfactory cop-out that doesn’t make sense. Neither of these things are true. It is not reliant on an extraordinary coincidence — it might look that way at first, but the full explanation reveals it to be anything but — and there are numerous clues along the way as to what it might be, even if some are more thematic than the actual red herrings that almost lead Poirot astray. It’s a shame that knowledge of the ending is quite widespread these days, though that’s perhaps inevitable for a 76-year-old story. Still, I’ve done my bit.

In the lead role, Albert Finney’s Poirot may have received an Oscar nomination and, more importantly, been approved by Christie herself (according to some; according to others, she wasn’t impressed), but he now pales in the inevitable comparison with David Suchet’s definitive portrayal of the Belgian detective. Suchet has defined Poirot in a way few other major franchisable characters have been (Connery may be widely accepted as the best Bond, but there are plenty who’d choose Moore, Craig, Dalton and Brosnan, and you may even find someone who likes Lazenby; equally, Sherlockians may divide themselves between Rathbone and Brett, not to mention Cushing and hundreds of others). He has the advantage of being able to perfect the role across hundreds of hours of television, but nonetheless stands proud as the high-watermark that others can only try to reach (even those who played the role 15 years earlier).

Finney’s version is more obviously comical than Suchet’s. Where humour in the latter is derived from his serious fastidiousness, Finney plays it more for laughs; where Suchet seems almost solemn in his investigations Finney frequently bursts into laughter. It’s a broader interpretation of the character, one that ultimately lacks subtlety. At least Finney is thoroughly subsumed in the role, which means that after a while one does become accustomed to it.

The rest of the cast are well suited to their roles. Ingrid Bergman won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, though one wonders if it was a weak year for the category as her part is miniscule and not particularly memorable. Elsewhere, famous names such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Michael York, and many more, round out a truly star-studded ensemble where each has but a small part to play. It must be relatively easy to attract big names to Christie adaptations — as the TV series still do — when the author is so beloved and the amount of time required to shoot is (for a guest star) so small. Best here, perhaps, is Martin Balsam as Poirot’s friend Bianchi, who’s treated to several good scenes, not least the series of interviews where after each he confidently declares “it was them!”

As a standalone film, Murder on the Orient Express is a skilled effort (I can’t comment on its quality as an adaptation because I’ve never read the book). For a viewer so familiar with Suchet’s interpretation of the character, however, even an all-star cast can’t quite remove the feeling that it’s not quite right. The Suchet-starring adaptation of this particular case has been filming recently, hopefully for broadcast later in 2010 (though knowing ITV we could have to wait as long as 2012), but even though it’ll have the definitive Poirot leading its cast, this film leaves a lot to live up to.

4 out of 5

(Originally posted on 15th January 2010.)