Dame Agatha Christie’s two most popular sleuths, Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple, have been brought to the big and small screens numerous times. For 2017, actor/director Kenneth Branagh stars as Belgian detective Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express.” Following the lead of the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet, Branagh has assembled an all-star cast of suspects for Poirot to investigate.
Poirot, always impeccably dressed with his mustache expertly groomed (and, in this version, a very wide mustache indeed), is introduced solving a case of a stolen religious relic in 1934 Jerusalem. While Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot keeps intact the detective’s desire for balance, order and solitude, it does so with a kind, lightly humorous touch which nicely avoids making the Belgian appear fussy.
Having solved the Jerusalem case and helped apprehend the felon with a very slick trick with his walking stick, Poirot decides he deserves a vacation. He hopes to relax and enjoy reading Dickens on a journey from Istanbul to Paris aboard the Orient Express train.
His friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) gets Poirot a berth in first class. But, Poirot’s dreams of relaxation will be interrupted by murder. The victim, an American “importer” named Ratchett (Johnny Depp) had earlier tried to convince Poirot to keep him safe from someone who was threatening him. Poirot had politely but emphatically refused, only to have Ratchett’s stabbed corpse be discovered when an avalanche de-rails the train.
Bouc persuades Poirot to investigate the crime before the local police arrive. So, the Belgian detective and his brain’s famous “little grey cells” set about interviewing the first class suspects. There’s quite a long list: Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid, Hildegard (Olivia Colman); Count and Countess Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boynton) who refuse to leave their compartment; governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) who appears to know Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.); Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is attracted to Poirot; extremely religious Pilar (Penelope Cruz); Ratchett’s two employees (Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi); and racist Professor Hardman (Willem Dafoe).
Anyone who has read Christie’s 1934 novel or seen the 1974 Oscar-winning film will probably recall the solution to the crime since it is a unique reveal. But, Branagh’s production of Michael Green’s script will even keep the attention of “in the know” audience members.
The talented cast of “Murder on the Orient Express” helps make the film appealing. Depp brings a rough, cold-hearted turn to his paranoid gangster. Pfeiffer is convincing as an attractive woman who may be looking for a husband but who is not impressed by Ratchett’s attention. Dafoe’s professor makes racist statements which may seem contemporary in nature. But, the action is set in 1934 and such views also tie directly to that era’s fear-mongering which was manipulated by Hitler and the Nazi Party to gain power in Germany.
Ridley as governess Debenham is the one casting choice that doesn’t seem quite right. This is no reflection on Ridley’s performance. She brings an excellent balance of charm and secretiveness to her character. And, she looks as much at home in 1930s clothing as she does in her garb as Rey in the new “Star Wars” franchise.
Her casting becomes questionable when the script reveals Ridley’s Debenham was governess to one of her fellow passengers. In real life, the performers in question are separated by only two years and appear similar in age. However, their characters aren’t supposed to be contemporaries. Their appearance strains the credibility of their having been governess and pupil.
Despite that minor flaw, “Murder on the Orient Express” is very entertaining. Its pacing is smooth. The scenery and production design are opulent (Godiva chocolates receive quite a few product placements in the train’s dining car). Alexandra Byrne’s costume designs are elegant. The use of black and white images for flashback scenes is effective and recalls Branagh’s similar technique in his 1991 “Dead Again.” Additionally, shots filmed through beveled glass during Poirot’s interviews with suspects visually convey characters’ duplicity.
At the conclusion of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Poirot thinks he may be able to finally vacation in peace. Instead, a sequel film is hinted at when he is summoned to solve a murder on the Nile River. Given that Christie produced over 50 mysteries for Poirot to solve, audiences can anticipate further adventures of Branagh’s detective.