One of the most famous and read of the Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS the film benefits and suffers from being just that. There have been already 4 film adaptations of the novel, the best remembered being the 1974 Sidney Lumet directed outing with Albert Finney in the role of the titular detective, Hercule Poirot (the last syllable of his surname pronounced like a kiss) with his coiffed moustache.
This latest version directed by Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh who has directed films as diverse as THOR, DEAD AGAIN including Shakespeare’s HAMLET and HENRY V
written by Michael Green takes more liberty with the classic story.
When the film opens, it is crystal clear (no detective skills needed) that the first bits have nothing to do with the novel. Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh himself) solves the case of a missing relic as the introduction to the film, just as in many a James Bond film that begins with an action sequence for an unrelated case. This shows Poirot’s efficiency and style with an added sequence of his complaint of not being able to get the perfect half-boiled eggs for breakfast.
The film then continues with the assortment of characters introduced as they board the Orient Express, most of whom Poirot always knows. A murder takes place in the midst of the journey and all the passengers in the first and second class departments fall suspect. The train is stranded due to a snow avalanche and Poirot has time to use his wits to solve the case.
There are a lot of factors going against this film version. The most important of these is the fact that everyone already knows who the murderer is. It does not take one with good memory to recall the 1974 version that all the passengers did it, taking turns at stabbing Ratchet (Johnny Depp), the evil man who masterminded a kidnapping that affected a dozen or so lives, all of whom seek the satisfaction of seeing the man dead. That said, the 1974 version has popped up on TV once too often and inevitable comparison will be made.
Both films are quite different. In the 1974 version, director Lumet has assembled an all-star cast more impressive than this one, and he has managed to isolate each character while making each one as interesting as the next which won Ingrid Bergman her second Oscar and his cast other Best Acting and Supporting Role Oscar nominations. While Lumet concentrated on the actors, Branagh chose to pick the cinematography (by Haris Zambarloukos who did THOR). Though Branagh’s film is stunning to look at, one can only look at landscape for so long. His film is monotonously paced and too slow in parts and too fast when Poirot explains the details of the murder. The trouble with film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s works is that too much plot needs to be revealed on film, whereas in a book, the reader can take the time to digest all the details. The missing button on the conductors’s suit, the kimono, the planning of the murder, who is who during the Armstrong kidnapping are all a lot to take in, in a very short time. Branagh also gives himself too much screen time including a speech on heart over justice. A few actors have to little to do like Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz while others like Michelle Pfeiffer overacts her role for all it is worth.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS ends with the hint of Poirot’s journey to Egypt to take on his next case which means perhaps a remake of DEATH ON THE NILE. Remember that one directed by John Guillermin with Peter Ustinov as the detective, the most campy one with Elizabeth Taylor as the killer?